Rio de Janeiro
Rio has been suffering a massive dengue epidemic this rainy season. The authorities, not having acted fast enough to protect vast areas of the city, particularly the favelas, from the spread of the mosquito-borne disease, were having to set up army field tents to deal with the overflow from the hospitals. 90 people had died in the city alone since the beginning of the year, with over 220,000 infected.
Having been re-assured that the main tourist areas were largely unaffected, we pressed on with our plans to spend our last few days in Rio, known to native Cariocas as the Cidade Marivilhosa. The plan was to just relax for our last days in South America, soaking up the sun and samba in one of the world's great cities. Long, golden beaches, big surf, urban rainforest and plenty of hills welcoming with open arms all lovers of the outdoors. As we caught the airport transfer into town, through underpasses and flyovers and dingy northern suburbs, the downtown streets were awash with people running for shelter in the pouring rain. Hmmmm...
Based as we were in Ipanema, the beaches and the surf were on our doorstep and after the rain cleared up we went out to see what the fuss was all about. Miles of white sandy beach, fringed with palm trees, washed by big, green surf and overlooked by the rainforest-trimmed, towering monolith, Pedro Bonito. Beautiful people with beautiful dogs jogged and cycled in the dedicated lanes beside the road, sharing the space with the ordinary folk - young and old, rich, poor, fat, thin, gay and straight, all celebrating the sun happily together. Beach volleyball, palm trees, bikinis, sunshine and ambulantes selling more drinks, snacks and sarongs than you could need. The drinks of choice are caipirinhas, coconut milk, which, for R$2, a beachside bartender will machete open the top of a big green bowling ball and dunk in a straw, and bizarrely, Skol lager.
In this part of town, everything is easy-ozey and everyone is welcome to join the party. In complete contrast to the hedonism of Ipanema, its name, from an Indian root, means 'Bad Water'. The district is at the site of a lagoon fed by both fresh and salt water sources, making it useless to drink. Oh well, mine's a caipirinha:
Cachaca rum, chopped limes, crushed ice, plenty-many spoonfuls of sugar
Mix. Drink. Repeat as necessary.
Corcovado and the Statue of Christ
Took a cab up to Christ this afternoon. Built in 1922 and towering to a height of 40m high, atop Mount Corcovado (the hunchback), O Cristo Redentor - Christ the Redeemer - is an art deco statue of re-inforced concrete clothed in sandstone, with arms spread in a gesture of redemption over the city. He certainly has a privileged view - mountains, rainforest, beach and ocean grace his domain, as well as the spirit of the Cariocas.
One of the great football stadia of the world - In 1950 at a World Cup semi-final between Brazil and Uruguay it hosted 200,000 spectators. Nowaways, it is all-seater and has a mere 90,000 capacity. The home of all 4 Rio teams, Flamengo, Fluminense, Botofago and Vasco da Gama, the ground is a two-tier circle, the seats coloured blue on the bottom and the colours of the Brazil flag on the top: yellow, blue, green and white. We joined the fun shortly after kick-off in the semi-final match of the Liberatadores Cup between the home team, Fluminense, and LDC Quito, all the way from Ecuador on the ocean lapping the western shores of South America. The noise, as we emerged into the stands above the pitch, was a physical presence - enormous drums, accompanied by the clapping and singing of 40,000 fans welcomed us to the real spectacle - the amazing supporters. These people really know how to get behind a team - non-stop singing and dancing (no-one was sitting in the all-seater stadium) for 90 minutes and all of it filled with happiness and infectious high spirits. It was still a balmy 24 degrees at 8pm and ambulantes plied their trade through the crowd, making sure no-one was without their chilled cans of Skol or Coke. When Fluminense scored, red and green flags and flares flew and flashed around the stadium accompanied by more dancing and singing.
Towards the end of the game, a familiar edginess started to creep into the stadium as the score remained 1-0 and Quito threw everything at the ball. Any expression of dissatisfaction or arms thrown skyward in despair was quickly lightened by high spirits and before the moment had passed everyone was singing and dancing in the aisles again. The game ended 1-0 and the fans left happy, clapping and singing into the warm night air. This is the soul of Rio and Fluminense went on to win their group.
Sugar Loaf's cable car made an appearance in the 1979 Bond film Moonraker as the stage of a breathtaking fight between Roger Moore and the metal toothed villain, Jaws. Eschewing the easy ride up, we opted instead to squeeze on some hired 5.10s and wriggle into harnesses to scale the East face of the 390m peak known in these parts as Pao do Acucar. Not having climbed for 6 months we went for the easy route at 5.7, equivalent to [HS], which should still be comfortably within our capability. Or so we thought until our guide, Guilherme, told us nonchalantly in the car on the way over that many climbers feel its more like 5.9 [HVS equivalent] due to the nature of the rock. Great! Fortunately the sun was dipping behind a cloud, so at least we wouldn't be baked while we stewed in a nervous sweat.
On our approach, the looming hulk of Loaf's granite dared us to look up its steep lines to the summit. The familiar fear was upon us but it was like an old friend and we knew how to deal with it. Guilherme led us up a slippery scramble through dense undergrowth, clutching desperately at long rotted tree roots, to the base of our climb. The Joker was a bolted three pitch trust-fest in friction-based climbing with an ever steepening incline and a small roof thrown in to make sure of our commitment. Fingers and toes were tingling with the rush of adrenalin as we strained to maintain focus on the rock and DON'T LOOK DOWN. Steadily we made our way, mentally as much as physically, up the route. At the top of the 3rd pitch, we gathered together our gear for what Guilherme called a bit of a 'hike'. It turned out to be zig-zagging up a slab made greasy by recent rain, from which it felt like a slip would see us rocketing into a 100m void. Trust your feet and just stand up, said Guilherme. A familiar refrain amongst climbers everywhere but, as most know, saying it one thing, doing it is an entirely different bag of bananas.
Clouded by rapidly descending exhaustion, we set up at the bottom of the final roped pitch where the rock had weathered in waves, more like sandstone than granite. This was a different style of climbing - up a stepped gully and round and up over a roof, it was much more thuggy than the delicate balance of friction and footwork of the previous 3 pitches. Recruiting knees, thighs and elbows to the effort, D hauled herself over the crux with a trademark lack of elegance, coupled with copious muttering, last seen at Sierra de Toix on the Blanca in October. Drained though we were at this stage, we weren't done yet. There was one final 'hike' to the summit, hauling and slipping our way up steep boulders and seeping mud as darkness fell rapidly and the full moon rose in the sky. Staggering out onto the summit, our eyes blinked in surprise at the brightly lit glare of the gift shops and restaurants. We were as aliens from pluto amongst the clean and serene cable-car takers. But our reward was waiting. The whole of the Cidade Marivilhosa spread out 400m below us, twinkling like a million jewels in the evening sky.