The clouds were dark and the ground was wet when we landed in Rio de Janeiro Wednesday, January 23rd. It was an oddly surreal moment when we hopped on a bus from the airport that would take us into the city we had heard, dreamed, and worried about for what felt like ages. At first view of the city, my thoughts were flooded with the numerous warnings and pieces of advice we´d heard along the way (I could almost hear my mom in the back of my mind pleading with me to be careful). Within an hour we had arrived at Ipanema Beach where our hostel was located, and moments after setting my feet firmly on the ground in one of the most exciting cities in the world, worry was the last thing on my mind (sorry mom!).
We were met with a warm welcome at Hostel Harmonia, a cute place run by some Swedish guys. Arriving late afternoon we decided the day was already a write-off and dedicated it to running errands. The most important of these was laundry, as our dirty-to-clean clothes ratio was 90/10 and fresh underwear a thing of the past. It didn´t take long to realize how big of an obstacle the language barrier would be for us. Our Spanish enabled us to read most the signs, billboards, etc. in Portuguese, but verbal communication was a whole other story. Flailing hand gestures and looks of exasperation were now the norm, as our few token words in Portuguese did not get us very far.
We had known for a long time that Brazil would be the most expensive leg of our journey, but the fact that our daily costs rivaled those in Canada, was a shock to the system. Brazil does get credit for one thing - per Kilo meals. When we first learned of this concept we thought it was the most fabulous thing we had ever heard. Amazing buffets of salads, fresh fish, sushi, pasta, steak, cake, and icecream sounded like heaven. For the most part it was, until Pat and I had to roll ourselves out of the restaurant because we clearly took too much food and then persisted to eat ALL of it because well, we had paid for it! You think we´d learn, but this happened every single time we visited a per kilo restaurant and eventually decided it would be best to avoid them in the future.
Our first official day in Rio entailed a bit of exploring and a long walk down Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. While it wasn´t raining, the sun spent far more time behind the clouds than we would have liked (and this ended up being the case for the entire week we were there). We reveled in the fact that we were actually in Rio, watched the beautiful people strolling by and strutting their stuff, and tried to soak it all up. It didn´t take long for us to realize we needed to celebrate our arrival with an inaugural drink - a Caipirinha! For those who don´t know, it´s a glorious Brazilian beverage made with heaploads of white sugar, fresh limes, and like four shots of Cachaça (a vodka-like liquor). There is no actual mix in this drink, purely juice from the limes and the booze. Moral of this story = pace yourself...
We headed back to our hostel where the troops were being rallied to go to a fútbol match at Marcana Stadium. We signed up and joined the party! It was only an minor game and the stadium was maybe 1/3 full at most, but nevertheless what an intense experience! They place you in the section of the stadium that is completely full with the craziest fans and in no time we were screaming and jumping along with the drumline. Their passion is mind-boggling, these people did not stop chanting their songs (that Everyone knew) or waving their flags for more than three seconds the whole game. Pat and I figured we could de even better in terms of location and so we wandered to the front of the craziest section to take pictures and have a few beers with some random Brazilian guys who took the liberty of teaching us bad words in Portuguese.
Rio turned Pat and I into full-fledged tourists, as the next day we signed up for another tour - and this one was worth every single penny we paid. The Favela Tour was probably the most intense experience we´ve had since we began our adventure. Rio contains 700 Favelas, poverty-stricken areas of the city where the communities are built up the sides of the mountains. We visited Rocinha, the largest favela in Latin America with 300,000 people living within it (in a space comparable to my university campus!). There is one main road that travels through the favela from the bottom to the top, and the main mode of transportation is by motorcycle (it fast and efficient and the locals hire the motos take them from the top to the bottom and vice versa). We all climbed aboard the back of a motorcycle and made the 10-minute trip to the top. Our tour guide, who was quite entertaining, gave us instructions, ¨Ladies, if your driver is going to fast just wrap your arms tighter around them and they will slow down. Guys, if your driver is going to fast do NOT wrap your arms around the driver or he will go faster to get the to top in order to get rid of you quicker¨. My driver almost plastered us to the front of a bus a couple times as he was passing other vehicles on the tiny road - needless to say we were all grateful to come out unscathed.
We went all the way up to the very top of the favela and from there we would take the next few hours to walk down through the community and end up on the street run by the drug dealers - super. One of the first things we saw was the amazing graffiti. The artists are from the favela and are quite well-known, their artwork depicts their lives, trials, and tribulations within the favela itself. The homes are all built upwards due to the lack of space - people sell the roof of their own home so that someone else can build on top of them. Apparently in really bad storms it is not uncommon for an entire complex to simply collapse and wipe out others along the way. The laws of gravity work in a favela - everything from the top ends up at the bottom, especially the garbage - so the houses at the top are typically nicer and more expensive. Walking through the narrow passages, you feel like you´re in an underground community. Seeing the favela from afar you would have no idea how much goes on within it, each walkway only a few feet wide and lined with little stores selling pop, electronics, and handmade clothes. The people were beautiful- smiling, giggling, and feigning shyness. The children all want to be famous actors, models, and fútbol stars and most of them want you to take their picture because they think it might help them be discovered. Kids along the way try to sell their handicrafts, like bracelets made out of telephone wire (they know we suckers are coming!).
It is very typical to think that a favela is a very dangerous place for anyone to go, especially a foreigner. Everyone hears about the dangers, deaths, and drugs that are not uncommon in Rio de Janeiro, and we definitely went on the Favela Tour with these thoughts in the back of our heads. Turns out most everything we thought we knew about favelas was wrong. Rocinha is governed by the largest gang in Rio, and the leader of this gang is 22 years old (apparently almost past his prime as the average age of the gang is 8). The drug trade is incredibly lucrative, raking in a whopping $4 BILLION every month. How were all of our pre-conceived notions wrong? Well, the last thing the druglords and the gang leader wants is to give the police ANY reason at all to pay them a visit. Due to this reality and the fact that they want neighbours to respect their neighbours, there is virtually no crime within the favela itself (we were told a story of a young girl who stole from the corner store and the druglord cut off her hand to teach her that you don´t steal from your neighbours). There is virtually no drug use in the favela either, all the trade done on the main road where we ended the tour is between the drugdealers and middle/upper class people from better-off areas such as Ipanema. The children from the favela will definitely rob you or possibly something far worse, but they go to other communities like Ipanema to do it. The entire experience was so interesting, especially for the two of us, being political science/international relations students. The governance of the favela seems so ironically efficient and effective it definitely makes you think twice about judging the way things work. That being said, we did need to keep in mind that we were in a ´5 star´favela. Because of the sheer size of Rocinha, it rarely falls victim to gang rivalries- which occurs much more often in the smaller, easier to seize/takeover favelas which fall in the areas closer to the borders of rival gangs. The fact that we were able to take a guided tour to Rocinha also gives a good indication of how safe it is compared to other favelas.
The favela tour left us with a lot to ponder, in other words it was time to have a few Caipirinhas and let the day sink in. We also had to get ready for our first official night out in Rio - to Lapa we went! Friday nights in Lapa are normally supposed to be pretty fabulous, but in the days leading up to Carnaval they can be undescribable. We hit the town with a group of people - a few South Africans, Brits, and even a Calgarian! The highlight of the night was definitely the drinking in the street - thousands of people, cheap drinks, and Samba! Caipirinha in hand ($2 for about 6 shots of Cachaça), I realized it probably wasn´t going to be pretty the next morning, but I shoved those thoughts aside when Pat put another Caipirinha in my free hand! We ended up in a club at one point, dancing the night away to a few well-known tunes like ´Mr. Jones`. We realized that it was getting quite late and with another tour at 10 o´clock the following morning, we figured it best that we call it a night. So we headed home, not looking forward to the headaches that we would surely wake up with only a few hours later!