Saturday, December 30, 2006

Rio de Janeiro

After an uneventful ride to Rio, we arrive at my favourite bus station, the Rio Rotoviaria. I know the drill now of course, fight my way through the taxi touts, and out to catch one of several local buses, despite the book's advice that it will be hard with my full pack. Always up for a challenge. I find the right bus, clamber onboard asking the driver if it's okay to bring my pack, no problem. Then I reach the dreaded turnstile. All buses in Rio have a system whereby you get on, walk past the driver, then the front quarter of the bus is open, with seats, allowing you to muster the energy required for the assault course ahead.

Army recruits are put through their paces on the number 94 from Parson's Green

The conductor sits in a chair collecting money (almost all buses cost a flat R$2) as you pass through what I can only describe as a gate for regulating the flow of undernourished Vietnamese people (nationality chosen merely as an example of a generally fairly thin populus). I really struggle to get through this turnstile. Perhaps it's a system for making sure overweight and the elderly don't move around in the city.

He looks on over the masses struggling to get on to buses

Anyway, with a certain pride that I didn't cop out and take a taxi, I amble up to my hostel, Alpha Hostel, labelled as the Sun Rio Hostel just to confuse me and send me off down the next street. In and shown up to my room by rather camp Leon from the front desk. I tell him that I'm probably going to Sao Paulo for New Years because I have friends there. He wails and seems hurt, I could make friends here, he points out! True true, but that's the way things are. He sulks. I have actually paid for accommodation right through. All hostels here operate a system for New Year and Carnival (beginning of Feb) where you have to purchase a "package" of 4 or 5 days. I guess with the shortage of places to stay they can afford to do this. The hostel I am in here has a completely full house for New Years.

I'm in a room with 10 beds - two triple bunks and two double bunks. On arrival there was only a goblin-eyed short Spanish chap here, but the following morning it filled up and we now have full house. Packs and boxes are strewn about the place, towels hanging from all the bunk ladders. It's a mess.


It's supposed to be an air-conditioned room but the unit seems to be out of action. A single fan by the window wafts warm air about. Strangely it's a quite pleasant temperature outside. In here it's hot and muggy. We're given a little plastic bag with sheets in on arrival. I get orange. No duvet or blanket required. Instead a single sheet that I haven't had to go near. In the room below there are Swedish lesbians! Both pretty, one blonde one who has a slight Paris Hilton look, and the other oriental with short boyish hair. Our friend Carolyn (us being two English chaps in my room and myself) walked in on them "at it" and since then they have erected a screen around the bottom bunk bed. I wonder if they realise that they are the source of so much discussion over beers!

What is a "sugar loaf" anyway?

The first afternoon I head out, hop on a bus, and go to see the Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar), which is a massive granite cone at the entrance to Guanabara Bay that soars to 396m. I reach the cable car station, which is next to a large naval base, and therefore safe (good place to visit first in Rio!) and pay the $R35 (ouch, expensive!) entry fee. The cable car is apparently Italian-made, as if that would inspire confidence, hehe! Swiss, or German perhaps, but Italian? :) Anyway, the cable car takes you up to an intermediate mountain, Morro da Urca, you cross this then take a second cable car up to Sugarloaf. The views are fantastic. [GPS: 22.94955S, 43.15631W]. I thought I'd gone up too late, but I've timed it well, as the sun is just going down.

Rio stretching across the hills. Jesus up top. I'm staying just behind the beach on the right

Central Rio is on the right, the business and shopping district

Famous Copacabana beach at the other end from the Centre

The lights start to come on...

Beautiful sunset above Copacabana

I head back down from Sugarloaf, and via a couple of buses and some walking I get to Copacabana. The beach is actually enormous, and stretches round before hitting a fort which divides it from Ipanema and Leblon beaches. The walkway has a swirling mosaic pattern running the length of the beach, which I'm told is famous!

Never heard about it

Expensive hotels line the bay, some of which have their own private security. Dotted along the walkway are stalls selling beer and coconuts. I find an empty table, sit down and order both. The coconut milk is cold and refreshing. After drinking the juice through a small hole with straw, the chap cuts the coconut open so that you can eat the flesh inside. I avoid the beach for now, it's dark and given all the reports I've read and heard, not especially safe. I catch a bus back to Botafogo, where I am staying.

I should explain - although Copacabana is the most famous bit, I've chosen to stay in a district a couple of stops away on the Metro, or about 5-10 minutes on the bus. Botafogo is quieter, but much safer. Book describes it as a quiet middle-class neighbourhood, which I wouldn't exactly agree with, but I feel safe walking around at night. It's also very convenient for transport, as almost all buses heading up and down through Rio pass through here.

The safety thing is primary in Rio - the books all have lots of scary warnings about the dangers here, so although I've not seen much myself, I am being very careful. My book warns of armed robbery being frequent in certain parks, pickpocketing being rife, and if visiting certain areas, for example St. Theresa, you are strongly advised to take nothing but the clothes on your back and just enough cash (no cards or cameras) to get there and back and buy food and drink. Much of the crime supposedly comes out of "favelas", the self-contained slums that can be found all over Rio. Some of these slums, for example Rocinha, are enormous, with hundreds of thousands of residents, shops, internet cafes etc - they are in effect cities in their own right. There are tours one can do of the favelas, but I don't think I'll partake this time! On the bus back from central yesterday I did see a gang of youths being jumped by armed police in the park. The police leapt out of their car, with large automatic weapons being pointed in the teenagers' faces until each of them had been frisked. I guess the police are on high alert given the violence that has, according to the news, happened overnight.

Don't worry Mum, by the time you read this I will have left Rio!!

Apparently a new state governer is starting on Monday and the gang leaders are sending a message to him by throwing grenades at police boxes and burning a bus bound for Sao Paulo (I'm flying!!).

Far exceeding its sister institute in London in stature and research prowess...

In the evening, I go out to an Indian restaurant called Raajmahal, not far from the hostel, to enjoy my first decent curry since the UK! I have the thali, washed down with lots of nice cold beer. And when I say cold, I mean it! Not sure how they cooled the stuff, but as they pour it out, it freezes slighly, such that there are little slithers of ice in the liquid. Cold! I almost run out of money "sampling" repeatedly to make sure they are consistent in their product offering.

Breakfast at the hostel after a hot humid night is cheese and ham toasties. Not a bad way to start the day! I head out to visit Christ the Redeemer, on Corcovado mountain, 710m high.

The best view we had

Ah ha, my hill!

As we head up, it pours with rain. Not a good sign. At the top, there is thick fog, meaning we only glimpse the 38m high statue which was completed in 1931.

Oh dear

We waited around for almost 3 hours, [GPS: 22.95183S, 43.20996W], first under the base, then later at the cafe nearby. Nothing! In fact it gets worse, as after a while we can't even see the base from more than about 10 metres away.

Divine retribution

So I can't really report on the marvellous views to be had. Still, the statue itself is impressive when visible!

Next down to some airline offices, where I talk myself into flying (40 minutes) to Sao Paulo rather than taking the 6 hour bus. Factors that won the deal included the price, at about £40 including tax, and the fact that TAM fly to and fro the central airports in both cities rather than out of town ones. As I later discover, a bus to Sao Paulo was fire-bombed only hours before, another damn good reason to fly!!

In the downtown or Centro district, [GPS: 22.90981S, 43.17623W], where all of the big offices are, paper is streaming down from the high floors. It looks fantastic, like a scene from the movies, as millions of bits of paper flutter down randomly. I ask someone what it's all in aid of. Apparently it's traditional as New Years is approached. The paper is mostly shredded documents, and random fliers.

It's snowing!!

Not everyone appreciates the concept

I walk past the grand buildings, thinking one could almost be in New York.

I head into a pedestrianised area, looking for a cafe that my book recommends.

Cafe Cave is apparently a famous place, and I can see why. They have a long bar inside, packed full of pastries and cakes. One can stand here, or head to the sit down area at the back. I do both! After a delicious custard tart, I head back for a cappuccino. I am wise to the national sweet tooth though, so I cleverly ask for my coffee "con leche" (milk). She points me to the toilets. No, "con leche, sine crema" (without cream). Oh okay, she gets it. What comes back two minutes later? I kid you not.. a cappuccino with condensed milk!!! I cannot win!!!


Spent the evening having rather too many beers locally with the other Brits from the hostel, culminating in a lovely plate of cheesy chips at about 3am. Yum! Missed breakfast the next day (a rather unreasonable, for a hostel, 8am-10am).

In the afternoon I head with the two English guys to visit Maracanã Stadium. We go via the Rotoviaria, and the bus we take from there to the stadium is going to "Cid de Deus", i.e. Cidade de Deus - the City of God!!

Gulp. Don't miss your stop!

For those of you who haven't seen the film of the same name (and I was informed by Chris P that it was on British TV last night), it's about a slum outside of Rio which has is characterised by gangland violence and extreme poverty. The film is an incredibly powerful portrayal of how life may be there, though it of course has been somewhat glamourised for the screen. Well, I assume so anyway. We discuss whether or not to go there. If we do, it's tomorrow, without cameras and valuables.

Here's a quote from the director of City of God, Paul Lins: "the great majority of those living in the slums today are not involved in crime","there are about 200,000 residents at Cidade de Deus today, but only about 500 - who are heavily armed - are criminals."

Anyway, the stadium itself is somewhat disappointing - fairly run-down, and it's unbelievable that they could have accommodated 200,000 people, the highest ever for a game of football anywhere, here for a game (Brazil vs Uruguay in 1950 World Cup final).

I suspect if there were games on now, that would be a different matter - apparently the atmosphere is fantastic, with samba bands whipping the crowd up.

Great feet, and some footballer's

Pele chose this stadium for his last game. He also scored his 1,000 professional goal here

Back via Copacabana beach for a beer. It's a bit overcast.


Enthusiasm not dented

Then home for mega-blog sessions, via the golden arches. Yes, the first time since I've started travelling that I have succumbed. Blog needs updating everything since Xmas. OMG it's sooo boring doing this! I hope you all appreciate the effort that goes into this, particularly the photo-heavy entries!! Out in the evening again with the lads for beers round the corner.

The birds were disappointed with the lack of view

Tomorrow... the City of God. Wish me luck!

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