I think everybody’s got one. A far-flung destination, so far away from home and so foreign that you think you’ll never get there, yet you simultaneously kind of believe that maybe you will one day.
For me, that has been South America, and specifically Rio de Janeiro. South America was the sixth continent I had visited in my life, with Brazil my fiftieth country and BY GOD it felt really far away. Especially since I’d flown there from Europe and not from my actual home, Australia. I’d flown for 24 hours to get from Australia to Europe (albeit a while ago) and then another 15 to get to Brazil. I officially felt FAR AWAY.
Our first stop, Porto Alegre, didn’t feel particularly South American. The people looked European, the buildings (apart from all the metal bars and electric fences) looked familiar and the food wasn’t too foreign either. This wasn’t disappointing, not in the slightest. I marveled at the fact that I could be so far away yet I could hardly suffer from any real type of culture shock.
But Rio was different. I can’t put my finger on one thing that made the city feel ‘South American’ – whatever that means in my head – but it was an assortment of things. People of all ages and backgrounds wearing Havaianas. Musicians no doubt playing for tourists, but looking like they were there just for the fun of it. Kids walking around without t-shirts on, as if they were clearly optional. Enjoying black beans for the first time in my life (I don’t know what we do to them, but WOW they are scrumptious in Brazil). And open-air restaurants and bars, where the only thing that mattered was the football and the beer.
They are little things of course, but these were some of the things that endeared me to Rio.
I always love comparing cities; I can’t help it and it’s something I always do after I’ve spent a few hours in a new place. Rio reminded me of Sydney in many ways, not only because of its picturesque setting and beaches but also due to the feel in the city centre. The office buildings looked out of place and completely unnecessary, with their occupants filling the streets at lunchtime, eager for some fresh air. People would look relieved to be outside and generally didn’t look like ‘office people’. Suits and ties go with grey and rain. They just look weird and out-of-place in laidback, beach-orientated cities and I hardly saw any in Rio.
I spied most of these business-y people in Centro, the business area a little north of most of Rio’s areas of interest. If we’re going to talk about comparisons again, here I got the feeling like I was in Asia again. It was warm, it was hectic and we found ourselves dodging traffic, buskers, street sellers and general chaos.
I loved it. When you’re lying on one of the city’s beaches or gawking at the views from Christ the Redeemer, you can often forget that you’re in the middle of a six million-strong metropolis. Sprinkled amongst the chaos were beautiful colonial buildings, predominantly 1970s-style skyscrapers and the odd pocket of alfresco restaurants and bars.
There were lots of different pockets of Rio and within them, all sorts of different histories and sub-cultures. We stayed in Flamengo, a fantastic neighbourhood about midway between the Centro and the famous beaches in the south. We were treated to tiled squares, local open-air bars, all sorts of different cuisines and views of Christ the Redeemer. Next time I head to Rio, I’ll stay there again.
Another atmospheric neighbourhood was Lapa. Historically of note due to its 300-year old aqueduct, Lapa today is a rough-and-tumble bohemian area featuring samba schools, old-school bars and the funky Escadaria Selaron. The colourful outdoor staircase was the pet project of Chilean Jorge Selaron and is covered in dazzling mosaics and little tiles donated from every corner of the world. Again if you’re comparing, I’d call it a sort of urban Parc Guell (Gaudi’s famous park in Barcelona). We were there for ages, exclaiming whenever we found a tile depicting a kangaroo or Girl with a Pearl Earring.
Of course, I am only talking about one side of Rio. It’s the comfortable, prosperous side that can see the favelas up on the surrounding hills, sometimes mere metres from some of the most expensive parts of the city. But there would always be some sort of physical divide; a highway, a train line, a steep incline.
Before I left for Brazil, I debated out loud as to whether I should go on a favela tour. I decided against it for a number of reasons, and I don’t regret my decision at all. At the same time, I sometimes caught myself staring at the favelas and I’d tell myself to look away, mentally comparing it to staring at a beggar or someone with a physical disability. But was it better to ignore them completely, pretend that they weren’t there? Obviously not. I’m just not sure what is the appropriate middle ground for a tourist.
One place where everyone mixed, however, was the beach. We visited both famous ones – Copacabana and Ipanema – and despite hearing how classy the latter was, we actually preferred the former. Now, this is like trying to pick which country has the best cuisine, Spain or Italy. They’re both brilliant, but as we’d been told that Copacabana was a bit tacky and faded these days, we were glad to both judge this as not the case at all.
We hired some chairs, grabbed a drink and took it all in from the sand. People were playing footvolley (volleyball with your feet), hawkers wandered around with some ingenious products to sell (prawns on a stick, anyone?) and the entire beachfront promenade was made pedestrian-only, which was most definitely needed. Everybody in Rio seemed to be at Copacabana that day, walking their dogs, drinking caipirinhas or jumping into the surf.
I was worried that I was going to be let down by Rio de Janeiro. I was scared that I’d built it up so much in my mind that it couldn’t possibly live up to my expectations. Plus, we’d spent almost two months’ rent on four nights at a middle-range hotel. It had better be worth it, I had thought. Despite my ordinary experience at Christ the Redeemer, it was. It may have been far away, but my mythical far-flung destination had come up trumps.