South America Top 5 Countdown
2. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
God made the world in 6 days; and on the seventh, he made Rio – Brazilian saying
This is where it all began…my 2011 edition of the ‘Motorcycle Diaries’. I’ve been planning a South America trip – especially to Peru – for the past 3 years, and every year I ended up going elsewhere. Rio, or Brazil for that matter, wasn’t on my radar until I and a few friends started planning last year’s new year’s eve trip to New York. But when several circumstances changed at the same time, I figured the only place better than a NYE @ NYC is Rio. A friend had done the same a few years ago and guaranteed Rio had the best new year’s eve party in the world. Period. Besides, I figured I will be attending either the world cup or the olympics in Rio, so might as well do a trial run first 🙂
My vacation could not have started at a better place! After enduring our Vancouver rain for almost a month, I was dying for the sunshine and beaches of Rio. And after only two days, the scorching sun gave me a tan I never thought I was capable of getting. But I wasn’t expecting the sheer beauty of the city, captured oh so well by the above Brazilian quote. Vancouver, my home and a world-class city on its own right, pales in comparison. The most amazing part of Rio was that it reminded me of so many places I’ve visited: New Zealand’s tropical flora and fauna; Beirut and Tel Aviv’s seawall and beaches; Vancouver’s double dose of the ocean and mountains; and finally, Dhaka’s poverty-stricken slums.
Yes, it was the slums – or favelas – where I decided to stay in Rio; to veer away from the usual touristy spots and experience something unique. Part of my trips always include volunteering, this time by giving my time for the youth of the favelas – the inhabitants of the largest slums in South America and perhaps the world. Obviously I had enough apprehension about staying there; I’d seen City of God, Wasteland, and countless other films documenting the extremes of Rio and specifically the dangers of the favela culture.
But what I experienced couldn’t be farther from danger. Intrigue, yes – for one had to turn a corner to find some dude with a machine gun dealing drugs in broad daylight and in public. And if you were lucky enough to not get shot, scores of motorbikes whizzing by would surely kill you if you weren’t paying attention. But that’s where a sense of humor is important. One guy offered to take my picture holding his machine gun, for 50 reyas. And for 100, he could take me to the top of the mountain and give me a rocket launcher! He claimed it was a popular choice for tourists’ facebook profile pic. Yeah, that would definitely put me in a bunch of lists I wouldn’t want to be part of!
But in spite of all the stereotypes and negative media, the people of the favelas were very hospitable and friendly. And in spite of the harshness of their lives, they were extremely content and happy! The youth especially were full of potential and dreams, which made it even more difficult to grasp that most of them were destined for an endless cycle of crime, prostitution and poverty in a very class-based Rio society. Nowhere was this juxtaposition more evident than among the women – whereas the rest of Rio ran amok with designer clothing and plastic surgery, the simple yet humble women of the favelas sparkled with natural beauty, inside and out. Overall, one has to wonder how a little stroke of luck determines whether one’s born into a life of poverty or wealth (and the opportunities that come with them), given that the both dwell side by side in the same city, let alone another continent.
Because a ten minute walk from the favelas was Leblon, one of the most expensive neighborhoods of Rio, where I also got to stay for a few days. Close by was Ipanema beach, a far superior beach in my opinion than Copacabana. The latter is more famous, which means more run down, touristy and sometime even shady. The people jogging, strolling, and rollerblading the crisper seawalls of Ipanema were local, a more hip, crowd who loved live music and dancing along with a plethora of beach sports. I would regularly stop at a coconut stand to quench my unbelievable thirst and slurp the coconut which at times was my only meal of the day! But I could live on that stuff for days; in my broken Portuguese I’d walk up to a vendor and ask if I could buy a coconut stand, to which he’d reply, you mean a coconut, and to which I’d reply back…no, I mean a coconut stand! Hey, the price was good 🙂
Other highlights included the Cristo Redentor, Sugar Loaf, and my first ever hand-gliding experience (and I couldn’t have picked a better scenery in the world!). The culmination of my trip was of course new year’s eve of 2011. Thankfully I had some friends, both local and a few Americans, who guided me through the jungle of crowds in the evening. But whereas most of us think of Rio’s new year’s celebration as nothing but wild and crazy, it’s actually a very festive time for families to come together; where the beaches are completely covered in white shirts and dresses as a sign of a new and pure beginning. And what a beginning it was for me…to usher in the new year on a very high note full of amazing experiences and a greater awareness of one of the most amazing cultures in the world.