Date of trip: June 10, 2016 - June 19, 2016
Read “Part 1” of our 8 day Rio de Janeiro trip here.
- Day 5: Woke up in Buzios, buggy tour with Maria, boat tour, took a bus back to Rio
- Day 6: With tour guide – day 1: walk along Ipanema, hike Tijuca forest to Dos Irmãos, toured Vidigal favela, explored Lapa
- Day 7: With tour guide – day 2: walked to Centro for a tour, snacked at Confeitaria Colombo, Museu de Arte do Rio, Angu do Gomes for lunch, explored Lapa
- Day 8: Breakfast at Confeitaria Colombo, explored Centro, Praça Mauá, Copacabana beach, flight home
Looking for tips? Check out our 13 tips for traveling to Rio de Janeiro.
We woke up early that morning in order to plan our day. Surely we would find a boat tour–it was all I had wanted on this whole trip! We anticipated going through the hotel to book a tour, but the man at the front desk didn’t speak English and after using a translation app on our phones, the man told us to book at the city center. It was too early for things to be open, this we knew. Yet we walked the length of the boardwalk to the city center.
On the way, we saw fishermen on the beaches filleting the morning’s catch. Black vultures and seagulls flocked to the leftover carcasses tossed on the sand. I made a note not to walk along that stretch of beach.
After finding the plaza at the city center empty as expected, we returned to the hotel to eat breakfast–fruit, cake, and ham and cheese sandwiches. At this point, I wasn’t hopeful of finding a boat tour. We decided to set out on foot and wander towards the beaches. As we neared the water again, a man with fliers tried selling us tickets for a driving tour of Buzios. “You speak English?” He turned around and called to a woman “Maria!” He turned to us, “She speaks English.” Maria was a much better sales person, you know, since we understood what she was saying. She wanted to take us for an hour long buggy ride across the Buzios region to see the many beaches and lookouts. We hesitated. Maybe we’ll come back later we told her. We walked maybe 20 steps before turning around and admitting, “Just kidding. We’re ready!” Because why not now?
Maria had us jump into the back of her sandy buggy. A scene from spongebob was painted on the hood of the vehicle—totally weird but mostly appropriate. Maria took off quickly, and with the wind in our faces and the water blurring past us, I turned my camera’s shutter speed up… She took us past the oldest part of town, a tiny square with trees and benches, surrounded by more cobblestone and tiny storefronts. The buggy zipped up, down, and around tight bends, passing rows of luxury hotels and spas. We stopped at a few beaches and lookouts.
It was relieving, again, to speak English with someone behinds ourselves. We giggled with Maria about our attire, as she wore a sweater while we wore tank tops in the 70 degree weather. She taught us about the names of the beaches and their meanings. “This one is called brava because of its strong waves.” One beach was called “calor” for its heat, and another was named after the hawks that flew overhead. She took us along the dirt roads further inland where famous Brazilian’s own private mansions, such as the Brazilian fútball player, Adriano. Towards the end of our tour, Maria asked us if we knew about Brad Pitt (Yes…..M’am. We do). She went on explaining she had given Brad Pitt a buggy tour, and hadn’t notice it was him until halfway through the tour. Through her accent, she said to Chris, “Have you heard of Mark Zuckerberg? You look just like him.”
At the end of the tour, Maria asked us how the tour was and if we were interested in doing a boat tour next. YES! We quickly made it back to the hotel to check out and had Maria zip us to the city center–this time in her own car, not the buggy. I mumbled something about seat belts, and Maria, with a cigarette in her mouth said, “No, the windows are tinted.” I looked at Chris with a raised eyebrow and question on my face. Maria dropped us off at the city center where a group of tour guides were rounding up tourists and signing them up for the 11:00am tour. Maria helped sign us up and wished us farewell.
When the tour began, we were corralled to the pier and onto the boat. Eventually, the motor started and out into the blue, lapping water we motored. We neared and passed a green island, the water bright blue around it’s shallows. The samba music started, and the strangers around me began singing in Portuguese. A man walked around with a tray full of caipirinhas. The sunshine hit our legs as the boat shifted in the water. Was this heaven? I observed the people around us. How could people be so beautiful?
Our boat tour took us to three different swimming spots. The boat slowed as we neared one of the big beaches of Buzios. People started stripping to their tiny bikinis and jumping in the water with foam swimming noodles. I tried getting goggles, but wasn’t fast enough. We watched as the strangers frolicked in the blue water, waiting for the next stop to swim. Men in small fishing boats veered close to the boat, dropping off people to sell nuts and kebabs of meat and cheese.
The boat made a move on after some time. I needed a drink in order to jump in the ocean. The man with the tray came around. “Be ready to say ‘one’ and ‘how much’” Chris said. I practiced and when he got to me I put my finger up to say I wanted one. The man spoke very quickly and waited for me to respond. I stared at him and he stared at me. Ali, what did he say? That’s not what I was expecting. FUCK. Ummmm….He then turned to the people next to us, “Americans?” The others nodded, “Yes”. One man turned to me and said, “He said you can have one for seven Reals or two for ten.” I thanked him for the translation and bought my drink. The man took my bill and disappeared to the other side of the boat. I sipped on my caipirinha, red from my confusion and dying to slam some alcohol. There was something uncomfortable about being asked if I was American in a moment of incompetence–another humbling moment in a land of very little English.
The music played on and we swayed with the waves. The woman next to me wore a black string bikini with cheeky bottoms. I wanted to fit in, so I stuffed my swimsuit up my butt a bit. Or rather, I just didn’t fiddle with it as we typically do when it wedges just a little too far. I looked down at her feet, noticing a badass scorpion tattoo on her heal. I looked at my feet. I had a week old bandaid on my heel. UGH. I just couldn’t. I ordered another caipirinha.
Eventually, we neared an island and anchored. Chris and I jumped in with our noodles and started swimming to the island. The water was cold and salty. I was scared of stepping on rocks, crabs, or anything actually. We swam fast, between the blue sky and the blue water, keeping our feet and knees up until we reached a shallow sandy spot. We walked around on the sand and rocks in front of the green island, in awe of where the hell we were.
At the last stop of the boat tour, we sat in the sun, rocking with the boat and talking to the young Brazilian tourists next to us. They were from the south of Brazil where it is very cold and snowy. Who knew! A small boat with a steaming grill full of kebabs approached, docking to the side of our boat. People flocked to the boat to take pictures with one of the men, a black man with a chiseled body, an itty-bitty sunga, a pink and black flat brimmed hat, and gold teeth. “Is that a famous person?” I asked the girl next to me. She didn’t think so. We sat confused together, watching the man take photos with the strangers.
When the boat tour ended, we ordered two huge pizzas from the nearest pizza place and took one last stroll on the beach. It was super romantic and blah blah blah, then Chris dropped our leftover pizza in the sand–it was clearly time to go.
Once on the bus, we changed into dry clothes and plopped in the window seat, anxious to see more of the countryside. We were thankful for meeting Maria. She helped us see more of Buzios than we ever could have in just two days. The bus fired up and Chris fell asleep quickly. I fought off my heavy eyelids, watching again as the touristy streets faded into busy, local venues. The town fell away to the countryside, and I watched the sun dip below the mountains.
In the back of the dark bus, with people slouched and snoozing in their reclined seats, I was a kid again sitting in the backseat and thinking about life. Across the freeway and tucked into the hillside I saw an old home, slanting slightly like it was sliding down the hill. How beautiful. How absorbing. Who once lived there? When was it built? Does someone live there now? Perhaps it’s not as old as I think. Perhaps the house is a home–maybe even to a large family. I wondered what it would be like to live in that home. Would it be so beautiful and interesting then? Was it even safe?
I suddenly felt really ignorant. I thought back to our first days in the city when I smiled and snapped photos of the city that’s famous for it’s wealth, racial, and political divides. Was I the gawker? You know, the spectator with narrow interests of snapping a good picture–the one riding high on the exploration of new sights without really understanding the place? Was I the one in lala land, a comfy length away from the shit? I worried and contemplated. I tried for a reframe.
Yes, I was the gawker, interested and intrigued. And yes, it was okay to see beauty in otherwise dismal or devastating circumstances. I was just missing the piece where I wonder and ask others about this life they experience. Surely, I couldn’t assume either way that living in a slanting house in rural Brazil was either devastating or interesting, comfortable or challenging, fulfilling or otherwise. But I could always ask, and listen.
In a culturally relevant teaching seminar I attended recently, I found more words for how I was feeling in that moment. The presenters of the seminar shared a TED Talks presentation by novelist Chimamanda Adichie, who warns of the dangers of assuming you know the story of someone else’s life, without ever meeting them. It’s absolutely worth the 18 minutes.
Back on the rolling bus, I closed my eyes as the landscape grew darker and darker. When we neared the city of Rio, literally sparkling in the dark, we watched a plane fly low overhead and land nearby. Welcome home, she dazzled.
On day 6, we were to be touring the Tijuca Forest and Vidigal favela with a local tour guide recommended by our host. At the corner store, we sat on the sidewalk in small plastic chairs and fueled up on coxina, a frozen açaí bowl, and bananas. Soon, our tour guide, Vinicius, was at our door and ready to go. A tall carioca from the northern side of Rio, Vinicius had a calm presence about him as he introduced himself, shook our hands, and extended his hand to the road in a gesture of beginning our adventure together. We walked down Escadaria Selarón, our first time descending into the neighborhood of Lapa.
We crossed the plaza, the Praça Cardeal Câmara beneath the Carioca Aqueduct and towards the center of downtown. Vinicius walked with his hands held at the base of his back, gently pointing out the significance of various landmarks as we went. Were we comfortable with taking the metro? The what? The subway system. Yes, of course. Vinicius helped us purchase two tickets and find our platform. We talked politics briefly, and he graciously answered my questions about his story, where he’d come from and so on. We stood there cramped together among the commuters in the subway car, feet set apart to avoid bumping into one another as we answered questions about ourselves.
Vinicius offered to take us an extra 30 minutes along Ipanema beach, to which we said PLEASE. He and Chris strolled along the tiled boardwalk as I fell behind snapping pictures of the beach. “That’s where our hike will take us,” Vinicius said as he pointed to the top of the Dois Irmãos mountain, named after it’s matching peaks that overlook much of the Leblon and Ipanema neighborhoods. We walked the entire stretch of Ipanema beach, crossing over to Leblon beach and up the hill to the base of the Vidigal favela. Vinicius explained to us that while many outsiders view the favelas as slums or places of great poverty, this was not true of all favelas, as many are home to many middle class cariocas.
We entered the favela, the neighborhood on the hill, and saw the motor taxis. A gang of them sat at the base of the hill, asking and taking requests from people needing to get up the hill. Vinicius asked us kindly, would we rather take a van? We had spent much time at that point gawking at the fearless motor taxis, chiming their bells as they veered in and out of traffic. I was not about to get on one. And Chris agreed. We approached a white van, parked with it’s door open. We squeezed in the middle seat among two others. Vinicius, a tall human by most standards, and three others squeezed in the seat behind us and we waited shortly before the driver took our money and closed the doors. I sat there with a hip on Chris, trying to be as small as possible.
Up we went. The road snaked back and forth, twisting sharply around corner stores, dumpsters, and parked vehicles. The van shuddered as we climbed. Abruptly we stopped, letting the woman and child next to me off. An old woman with a white bun of hair on top of her head and two plastic bags of groceries unsteadily loaded the van and filled the empty space next to me. Vinicius helped her close the door. We stopped again and again, perhaps five times before Vinicius tapped us from the backseat for us to exit. And there we were. The foot of the mountain stood just there beyond the school fences at the top of the Vidigal favela. Vinicius explained we would climb up and back down the forest and down through the favela before catching a city bus back home. Again, up we went.
The shadowed forest was comfortable. Vinicius encouraged us straight away to warn him when we were falling behind. Yeaup! The path was wide and reasonable. This was a piece of cake, I’ll be fine I told myself. How beautiful! This is easy as pie. And then it wasn’t. Was it too soon? Could I say it now? Whew! I was so hot all of a sudden. The path got steeper, the steps further apart. The roots of the trees kept tripping me. We wiped our brows and I huffed and puffed for a break, apologizing to my ego. A few times I made us stop, just to catch my breath. I knew sitting for too long would be a dangerous maneuver.
We reached a plateau overlooking Rocinha, the largest favela in Rio. The sheer size of the sprawling slum is massive, and it clings precariously to the steep hillside. Vinicius explained the government has prohibited Rocinha inhabitants from building higher into the forest. Further, walls are being build to confine Rocinha’s development from the prosperous, and not ironically spacious neighborhoods to the west. It’s estimated the favela is home to around 180,000 people (according to my internet research–though, Vinicius estimated nearly 300,000). He sat momentarily resting on the rocky plateau and looking out over the hillside. He once guided tours through Rocinha, but after hostile experiences with the people there and for the safety of everyone involved, he said he doesn’t return. Vidigal has been much more accepting of his tours. But alas, since the extense of my true understanding of Rocinha is limited to this and the beautifully compiled preface of my Rocinha picture book from documentary photographer Andre Cypriano, I encourage readers interested in favelas to look into it.
And again we climbed higher through the green, bright forest, the sun slipping through the tops of the trees and burning the back of our necks. I thought back to the times we contemplated doing a day hike in the forest, and the moments I let the vision of me standing atop a tropical summit with my fists in the air blind me from the reality of my sorry ass. I was waiting for Chris to say, “I told you so”. Instead, he held my water bottle, camera, and cardigan and hiked behind me, pushing my bum up when I needed a stronger fight against gravity and those massive tree roots–those dirty fighters.
And then the time came when our brief painful stops came to a happy end and we had reached the summit of Dos Irmãos. Two men sat under an umbrella in a clearing of tall grasses selling water and gatorade out of a cooler. Out over the grass and rocky summit was the ocean, hazy as it met the horizon. And there it was before us. Not the whole city, but much of it. The white beaches of Leblon and Ipanema snaking east to a point before turning north behind green mountains. The heart shaped lagoon, Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon in the middle of the city. The horse racing track and Christ the Redeemer, a small figurine sitting atop Corcovado mountain. The faint scribbles of islands, jutting out of the ocean in the distance. And the trees. A green city she is.
A group of young and exceptionally tan hikers who had beat the rush sat on the rocky surface sharing travel stories. We followed Vinicius past the group and found a spot to sit looking out over the city and the ocean.
Vinicius graciously took a package of cookies out of his fanny pack (I need one) and offered it to me. Yes, please. Thank you. And THANK GOD. I hadn’t eaten enough breakfast. My muscles were shaky and the dizzy was clouding my head. We sat and took in the breeze and the chatter of world travelers, speaking more about the city. With time we pulled ourselves away from the view, and bought a gatorade for the way back.
The hike down the hill naturally hurt less. I gave words of encouragement to those passing by, especially those grimacing and cursing the tripping roots. And to make it all worth it, there sat up in the trees near the trail three tiny monkeys. Vinicius slowed us and we approached the monkeys with anticipation of them fleeting. But they looked down at us, not giving a damn to scurry away. I spotted another monkey sitting on a branch near the ground. It looked up at me with its green little eyes as if to say, “Good day.” And then it got better. One of the monkeys had the tiniest of monkey babies on its back. They were no more than 3 pound babies. I squealed over and over again. Vinicius gave them a name, the species that is, explaining they were not actually native to Brazil. Very reluctantly, I said goodbye to the monkeys and continued down the steep trail, slowing at times to gain control of my momentum. The tips of my toes grew sore as they all squished in the toe space of my tennis shoes. I knew bruises would come (and a week later they did).
Not long after our start down, we were at the bottom in front of the school again. Vinicius started with his guide, and I grabbed the camera. We followed him down the windy road through the favela, along the crumbling narrow sidewalks, past three and four story buildings of brick, open storefronts, steep steps, and the people. I needed to capture this. The energy, the smiling children in their school uniforms, the men carrying store goods on their shoulders, the people sitting at the corner store watching the small corner tv, the old woman in the open air room sewing on a piece of cloth, the cat in the doorway, the peeling walls, the waste.
On the metro I had asked Vinicius about taking photos within the favela. I feared becoming the gawking tourist, poised behind my lens with confident ignorance and unknowing of what my pictures may mean to the favela community. He assured me that pictures were fine. But I still felt ishy walking through their home without introducing myself, no less taking pieces of it with me without asking. I turned my camera speed up and held it at my chest or hip and snapped pictures as discreetly as I could.
I tried my best to listen to the knowledge Vinicius was sharing with us. I started lagging behind, trying to move slow enough to stay in the moment and fast enough to not draw attention to myself. Motor taxi’s and cars zipped up and down the hill passing us with growling and spitting motors. I strained to hear his stories and remember the politics and the meanings. I caught sound bites–the favela tree, slaves as soldiers, organized crimes, police takeover, street art, poor transportation.
I remember feeling an energy of seeming normalcy, one that I had not expected given my preconceived notion of what a favela would be. People went about smiling, creating, selling, serving, and all these other action words that happen out of sight. It’s as Chimamanda Adichie would say, I had one storyline for how this would go. But now we knew a little more, at least, what life was like in the Vidigal favela. The road that spit us out at the bottom of the neighborhood was adorned with bright and colorful street art. To no one’s fault, I was disappointed in how brief the walk felt. I wanted to see and hear more. Though, we were tired.
We perked up with interest when Vinicius mentioned getting on a city bus to travel all the way to back to city center. Our feet sang as we took a seat on the bus. We shook Vinicius’ hand to thank him for such a lovely day. We took him up on his offer to tour the centro region (downtown) the following day. Of course we were interested in learning the history and politics of your home, and yes, you’re keeping us the best of company. And that was that. We took our tired asses up Escadaria Selarón to Santa Teresa reflecting on our day and wincing from sore muscles.
We showered the sweat away and rested. Chris snoozed in the hammock that stretched across the living space, and under the picture window facing the city. That evening we were bent on experiencing the infamous Lapa nightlife. We walked down Escadaria Selarón and grabbed a bite to eat at a cafe off the main drag with the help of the cafe’s host who spoke English. He wanted us to understand his love for Rock n Roll and Jack Daniels. “Friends,” he said, “I love your whiskey. How can I help you? What do you like? We have cake and juice. Try the watermelon juice!” I broke my rules and tried the beef Kibe just to say I tried it. Originating in the Middle East, it tasted as such with onion, garlic and parsley. Chris didn’t love the watermelon juice, so I chugged as much of it as I could and Chris chowed on the orange cake. We bar hopped, sipping on gin and Cachaça. I even got a Manhattan in a margarita glass. Who knew? We sat drinking and talking about grandparents.
We were aimless for a time. The sky had blackened but the light of the bars glowed on the sidewalks and streets. Cariocas, both children and adults, sat out on curbs, on patios. I knew there was a pizza place with Samba in the Lapa neighborhood from my research. How could we lose? We found the place and paid the cover fee to get inside, and though we couldn’t find a table near the stage we found a table in the back with a view of the band through a large wooden doorway. Two women about our age sat at the table inches away from us. They weren’t speaking English, but still I sat listening to their lovely accents.
After a couple drinks, the four of us started sharing more friendly smiles at each other. The dark, curly haired woman and I snapped our fingers and danced with the music. Someone eventually broke the ice and we learned they were from Spain and had met each other teaching Portuguese to secondary students, though they didn’t know how to speak Portuguese well. The women were kind and cheered drinks with us, offering to share their food. “Don’t be shy,” the dark haired one said to me with a smirk. Hi–we’re from the land of passive people, but thank you, we’re good. We accidentally ordered a pizza that had just cheese and mushrooms on it. We salvaged what we could and kept drinking. Me and the dark-haired Spaniard were both rosy cheeked and boozed enough to get up and dance. We took to the floor but as soon as we reached the stage, the music stopped. What was happening? She translated for me the band was taking a break. NOOOOOO all I wanted to do was make a friend and dance!
The mood died. We stood around on the dance floor until the music started back up again. Old men kept stealing my dancing partner from me. And after some time, Chris and I looked at our clocks and decided it was time to rest. They kissed our cheeks and pouted, asking us why we were leaving so early. “Because I’m American. I’m sorry!” We waved goodbye, wishing them well in their travels back home.
Our tired feet carried us once again up the steps of Escadaria Selarón to Santa Teresa. This time it hurt more. We were so damn happy to be greeted by those cobblestone streets.
I believe we woke up with slight head aches….but we popped some Advil and prepped for day 2 with our tour guide, Vinicius. As the morning before, he met us at our house, greeting us with his patient smile. We walked a different stretch out of Santa Teresa this time, one of the oldest roads of the neighborhood. Once again in Lapa, we walked under the big white arches of the aqueduct, Arcos da Lapa, built in the 18th century to bring fresh Carioca river water to the city.
We entered the city center to the Cinelândia plaza, home to some of the oldest most grand buildings in the city, such as the Municipal Theatre, National Library, and of course the Municipality and Higher Courts. Many such buildings were influenced by french architecture and looked a bit out of place among the modern buildings. And there we stood in the shade of a tree in the open concrete plaza listening to Vinicius share his city with us. As the story goes, the Portuguese arrived in January circa 1500, and mistook the Guanabara Bay for the mouth of a river, thus naming the city “River of January”. There is no river. A little presumptuous, no?
“We have no memories,” Vinicius repeated again and again. So much of what was, he explained, is now gone. Few historic buildings and sites still stand in even the oldest part of the city–for Brazil, or perhaps it was Rio in particular, is notorious for wiping clean and starting over without regard to history. He was right (of course). We covered more ground and heard more stories with few standing structures to accompany the tales.
We joked about the amount of cake in the city–in every window there seemed to be a glass case full of every color and flavor. “Ah, yes. We love our sugar,” he said. “We’re famous for sugarcane, coffee, and gold.” He reminded us that Brazil received more than half of the African slave trade, and that the Brazilian government has historically been fed directly by its military, as many or most of its leaders have not come from the general public. The capital of the country was once Rio de Janeiro, but due to political reasons he didn’t delve deep into, it was moved to Brasília, a place far from the outspoken carioca people. The National School of Fine Arts was even moved from the Cinelândia plaza to near the airport–on an island–to keep the liberal students from protesting their neighbors at the municipal building. It’s a complicated place, we agreed.
Vinicius took us to the popular Confeitaria Colombo, Rio’s oldest restaurant in its original location (circa 1894).
Like stepping into another era, we stood in front of glass cases of intricately baked goodies–cakes, chocolates, truffles, pastries, and more. Glass cases rimmed with rich, dark wood extended up the walls to the ceiling, displaying delicate treasures from the ages, original crystal glassware for the Belgian royalty. Past the glass cases, men in white pressed uniforms shuffled around petite marble tables and ornate wooden chairs with wicker backs and seats. The most massive mirrors framed the entire dining area, shipped over from Belgium for the arrival of its King Albert in 1920. The details extended upward. We looked up past the gilded ceiling coffers and soft glowing light fixtures to the oval opening in the ceiling. A second floor?! From where we stood, we saw through to the domed, stained glass window. This was either the Titanic or the mansion in Beauty and the Beast. Side note: if you needed to google what a ceiling coffer was, it’s because it’s not a normal thing to know. I had to ask Chris, the architecture major.
We ordered savory goodies of deep fried cheese, shrimp, and chicken. Vinicius let us taste his brigadeiro, a ball of chocolate fudge, the country’s favorite sweet treat. We walked and ate our goodies, dodging locals on their way to work and the road construction. We saw few men working amidst the piles of rubble and yellow caution tape. Was this city ready for the Olympics? Since that moment in downtown Rio, we’ve heard that question many times. I think back to that street. For better for worse, the short answer was always “no”. But did they host? We all know that answer. As for Rio in general, much of it is still being developed, according to Vinicius. “We’ve taken our time,” he said. “We’ve never been bombed like Europe, who has had to rebuild. But, indeed, we’ve taken our time.” And after all, could a city this big really ever be complete?
During the tour, Vinicius was kind enough to try finding me my favorite souvenirs–picture books and postcards. He found me a good book store where I purchased an André Cypriano photography book about Rocinha. He even found a small exhibit with old photographs of the city, asking the workers about where we could find the historical society. They advised us to ask the old woman behind the counter, but she couldn’t be bothered because she was eating her lunch. Ultimately, I was more impressed with the attempt than the outcome. I told him I appreciated his efforts, and was very happy with my new book.
Vinicius then led us to the port area and offered to buy us entry to Museu de Arte do Rio. We toured the obscure and the literal, videos of Carnivals gone by, and photos of police brutality flashing across numbers of deaths incomprehensible to me. With our hands held behind our backs, we wandered together with fresh eyes–this was Vinicius’ first time as well.
And then he asked if we wanted to dine with him. I’m sorry, what? Do we want to dine with a local and a new friend, continue our conversations, and pretend we are our own version of Anthony Bourdain? We were no more happy to take his offer than we were to eat a ball of chocolate fudge.
Vinicius took us to Angu do Gomes, an established place in an area called Little Africa, once a neighborhood home to African slaves. Famous for it’s angu, a historical dish of cooked cornmeal similar to polenta brought to Rio by slaves. Vinicius asked us if we liked beer, and asked the waiter for two English menus. The waiter came back with three tiny glasses, and we passed a cold bottle of beer around, spilling it in our haste to cheers and quench our thirst.
I sat there trying my best to be an enjoyable dinner guest, but wanted badly to turn my head in every direction and soak in every detail of the place. The floors were cracked and brick shown through the walls. A small TV in the corner was playing a fuzzy fútball game between Croatia and Czech Republic. Locals visited and sipped their red wine and light beer. A few male waiters stood in the doorway of the kitchen watching and waiting to service the dining room. We talked more about Anthony Bourdain, as Vinicius had shared the day before that he had been a part of the Rio episode of No Reservations. No WAY was I letting him get away without learning more. He explained he acted as one of the producers, a median of sorts between the English and Portuguese speaking people on set, and obtaining people and places for “Tony” to see. He said he drank a bit with Anthony, and was even featured in the episode. (Needless to say, I’ve since sought out, watched, and freaked about seeing Vinicius in Bourdain’s No Reservations Rio episode.) We bought our awesome tour guide lunch and then sought out for an ATM to pay him for his services.
This was when we walked around a large part of the centro area trying to find an ATM that would take Chris’s card. We hadn’t had an issue using ATM’s yet, using one in the city and one in Buzios, Brazil. Vinicius stayed patient with us, even continuing educating us about the city as we rolled our eyes at one refusing machine after the next. After a long embarrassing 45 minutes, Chris called his bank to discover they had placed a hold on his card after someone stole his numbers in Buzios. At this point, we were able to pay Vinicius for his services, his patience, and his time.
On our way back to Lapa, we passed the municipal building. A group of people at the top of the building’s steps were playing music and singing. From their signs, Vinicius gathered it was a group of patients from a psychiatric ward protesting government funding cuts to their art education program. A round middle aged man in a suit, a terrible hair cut, and a pin on his breast approached me with a pointing finger, and saying something brash. Vinicius furrowed his brow and said twice, “She’s not a reporter.” The man shook his head at Vinicius and again looked at me, “You speak English??” I just stared at the man, sensing I shouldn’t answer that question. He waited, and I shook my head, hoping Vinicius would bail me out. And he did, jumping in and speaking to the man in Portuguese. The round man didn’t like what Vinicius had to say, shaking his head and telling Vinicius he had bad English. The hero that he was, Vinicius told the man to “fuck off” as he corralled us away from the man. And it was the BEST. THING. EVER. “Was that a politician?” I asked. “I think so. I’m sorry I cursed.” I smiled and shared with Vinicius that little word was in fact my favorite word.
And so, I almost cried as we said goodbye to our friend who had given us two full days of care and service. We hugged, saying we would contact him about the videos and links we had spoken about. We headed back up the steep journey home. Chris ate some orange cake from the corner store and fell asleep in the hammock. I sat jotting down notes from the day, as not to forget the important details. The children from the home above ran up and down the stairs outside our open window to the patio below, speaking Portuguese in tiny voices.
That night we found another place in Santa Teresa to dine. At such an early hour to dine, we were almost alone in the restaurant. An old British woman sat a few tables away, dining alone and asking the waiter questions about the menu. We weren’t very hungry and ended up having to take our leftovers home before going back out. At the bodega around the corner, neighbors sat on small plastic chairs at small plastic table drinking from bottles of wine. They sat in large circles that overflowed out into the street. Some sat on the other side of the cobblestone in the shadows cast by the street lamps.
Chris decided to follow the noise of the city and took us back down the steps to Lapa. We passed a man speaking to a camera crew as he descended the steps. Into Lapa we wandered, straight into a street party. The plaza beneath the aqueduct was full of pop up tents with food and drink vendors. A stage surrounded by a growing crowd boomed music across the neighborhood. We ordered caiprivodkas and sat watching the crowds of people dancing. The young (and not so young) people of Rio and all it’s visitors are a colorful compilation of fashion and culture. Not one person looked alike, not in face or attire. We sipped on our sugary drinks, observing the pretty people, trying to pick out the Americans based on their boring clothing.. We left when the girl next to us woke up from her drunken slumber and puked on herself.
We bought two beers for the road and made yet again another trip up those fucking stairs. The bustling bodega was still alive and well when we passed on our way home. We sat on our patio looking out over the glowing city. The cathedral glowed purple, pink, then blue. The crowds of Lapa and neighborhoods beyond echoed across the city, and we sat there becoming nostalgic of a place we’d not yet left. I wrote about our day and Chris took photos of the city. Apparently I cried about leaving, according to my notes. Wouldn’t you??
On our last morning I couldn’t sleep in. I was excited for our last day, but happy to eventually be home again. I had just one thing left to see. The Royal Portuguese Library. A glory hole of Portuguese literature aging beautifully on ornate shelves. A total must see, in my opinion. Except that as I googled its location, I discovered it was closed. Duh, Alexandra, libraries are not open on weekends. I cleaned as I pouted. Eventually, we set out on foot through the quiet morning. We wanted more treats from Colombo. When we arrived, we decided to rest our feet and soak in the eloquence of the dark wood, stained glass, and patinaed chinaware. Afterwards, we wandered and found a bookstore with new and used books with antiques in the back. So, yea. I fell over, got back up, and touched everything in that store.
For a great deal of time, I stood over a table of books about the history of the city, flipping through their fragile tinged pages, scheming about how much money I could spend without Chris knowing. Scattered among the dusty books were old typewriters, ceramic figurines, and vintage cameras. Could I get away with buying the huge black and white picture book from the 1800’s? I used my best restraint, knowing we had little room in our bags for a book the size of a small child. I settled for a postcard and print of the aqueduct. Even so, I left with dirty fingers and a full soul.
Further on we went. We found a narrow street with shops selling all kinds of necessities–light bulbs, kitchen rags, tennis shoes, party decorations, snacks and toys. The road opened up and we were suddenly in the middle of a huge marketplace with crowds of people. I passed a small group of people surrounding an old man selling fruit from a wooden cart. He placed an orange in a black contraption and spun its handle. The orange spun on its axis and we watched mesmerized as the orange unpeeled within seconds. He then knifed a coconut top, dipped a straw inside, and handed it to an onlooker.
This place was the real deal. We wanted to snap photos. But should we? We sat down for a moment contemplated if it was smart to switch lenses in such a public place. Before we could think for too long, an older woman passed us slowly (Seriously, I swear everyone I encountered was old, even though it’s becoming an overused adjective in this story). She held a box of mentos and mumbled something in another language, as if offering to sell us some. We smiled and shook our heads, “No, thank you.” She turned around and asked us if we spoke Spanish. No. “You speak English?” Yes, we replied. She then said something very seriously in another language, and pointed at our camera. “You understand?” she asked, still pointing her finger at us. We nodded our heads, not understanding her words but knowing full well to put our camera away. Her reason for the warning–for our sake or for the locals–didn’t quite matter. We moved on.
We left the market feeling for the first time a little guarded, but recovered soon after being back in the wide open space of Praça Mauá, the plaza by Guanabara Bay. We sat on a grassy hill watching children crawl over the big, artsy letters spelling out #CIDADEOLIMPICA (Olympic city). A crowd had gathered around a monument watching four young models walk back and forth along the statue’s wide shallow steps, a runway of sorts. A serious looking man in all black directed them with minor hand movements and crossed arms. Two women at the top of the steps sang into microphones, and the crowd sang along. Closer to the water, a row of tents stood in a line, selling handmade goods and global foods. Women in colorful skirts, headwraps and aprons stood behind smoking woks dishing up bowls for the crowd. This was not a passive crowd. Onlookers got close, touching the art and jewelry, and talking to the vendors. They sat close by on short, plastic stools, cradling their bowls in one hand and eating with the other.
Deciding we needed to at least see Copacabana beach, we bought two tickets for the subway and traveled south.
Near the beach, we found a restaurant (ironically called Astor, and not to be confused with our favorite Minneapolis Aster Cafe) serving up great cocktails and delicious shrimp risotto. We then walked along Copacabana and bought a coconut for shits from the beachside stand, knowing full well the water inside would taste warm and expired. The afternoon had turned cloudy and windy, and after walking for literally five minutes, watching the waves crash in, and the summit of Dos Irmãos cover behind the clouds, we returned to the subway.
We meandered back through the Gloria neighborhood, finding a stone stairway so steep, we were sure it would spit us out where we needed to be, in Santa Teresa. So slowly we climbed the steps, never ending ones it seemed. At the top we stopped to catch our breath, but were happy to have found what we were looking for. We had intentions to explore more of Santa Teresa. Though I was reluctant to rest, Chris had us rest and finish packing. I wrote in those last couple few hours, musing about our explorations and watching the clouds roll in. It was time to go home. The city and I both knew it.
On our taxi ride back to the airport we debriefed about our time in Rio with the English speaking driver we had ordered through our host. He had the nicest, most kind sounding voice we’d ever heard. He asked us about our home state and our country. Humbly, he sat in the driver’s seat dreaming out loud about wanting to drive across America, to witness the wide open spaces and vast country sides. He wanted to escape the heat and see snow. How much more closure could we have found as we headed home, to meet someone living in the place we dream of, dreaming of the places we live in?
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