RIO DE JANEIRO | BRAZIL
RIO WAS BRAZIL’S BIRTHDAY PRESENT TO ME. SITUATED IN THE EMBRACE OF A PRIMORDIAL LOOKING COASTLINE, IT’S A FAMOUSLY WILD, COLOURFUL, SPORTING, AND MUSICAL TOWN. IN FACT PRETTY MUCH ANY POSITIVE AFFECTATION CAN BE APPLIED HERE.
It’s a instant scene setter in any movie: a dizzying helicopter swoop around the majestic Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado mountain, a slow motion shot of tightly honed bikini butts strutting down the sand of Copacabana Beach, feathers in a ridiculously ornate headdress swaying to an intoxicating samba beat. Rio is undoubtedly one of the world’s great cities. Of course everyday life on the ground is a lot more mundane then what we see on the silver screen. However Rio is one of those places where you can feel that energy even if you find yourself doing your backpacking chores, such as your laundry, which I often found myself doing. because I’m a child and can’t keep myself clean.
Everywhere in the city you are reminded of nature. Brazil, for me, instantly brings to mind images of steaming jungles and tropical beaches. Rio doesn’t do a lot to dispel that stereotype, surrounded as it is by some of the world’s most famous sand. It even features the planets largest “urban rainforest” in Tijuca Forest which covers over twelve square miles. Down by the coast a quick glance around reveals mountainous cliffs and peaks. The most famous being Sugarloaf mountain and it’s accompanying cable car.
During this trip I thought it would be cool to visit all of the New Seven Wonders of the World. It’s something I’ve achieved, and by and large they’ve mostly delivered on their promise. I’m sad to say that with Rio the only wonder surrounding Christ the Redeemer is how it made it on to the list head of other – more deserving – places. Cough*Angkor Wat* Cough. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a cool site, and certainly iconic, but like most hollywood celebrities up close the glamour tends to fade a little. The best thing about a visit to Christo Redentor – Portuguese for “Big Jesus” as my hostel mates “reliably” informed me – is the tram ride on the way up, and the view when you get there. The statue itself seems a lot smaller than you would imagine. It’s elevated by the stunning location and scenery. I’ve also heard from others that have been disappointed by it that the helicopter ride circling makes it worth it, and finally it begins to “click”. My counter argument would be that none of the other wonders needed an expensive helicopter ride to be mind blowing. And besides a helicopter ride to the shops to pick up some milk would blow my mind. Helicopters rock.
You can hike up here if you prefer, but it’s quite gruelling. As I said the views are definitely worth it. The day I came here there was filming and the platform was packed. It took several minutes scrambling and pushing like a redneck in Walmart just to get to the edge to look out.
On my birthday I took the cable car up to Sugarloaf Mountain. This place looks like a giant raisin stuck into the ground. Or a cyst. The cable car is actually in two parts, you take the initial car over the beach and to a second station where you can transfer to the final cable car in your own time. The peak of Sugarloaf is home to an expensive bar, more jaw dropping views over the marina, and a horde of koala / monkey looking hybrids which descended on my backpack like a zombie invasion. I’ll bet when the food runs out they’ll be just as desperate for human flesh too. It’s an amazing place to watch the sunset. Christ the Redeemer is easily viewable from here, and Copacabana beach is just to the left of the cable car station. At least I think it’s Copacabana. There are a lot of beaches here. As the sun set just behind Corcovado and the shadows lengthened along Copacabana I felt like Vin Diesel in Fast and the Furious. Only with more hair (for now).
Later on at the hostel we went for drinks and samba dancing. At least I think we did. I experienced a lot of missing time that night. As far as I know there was no probing, alien or otherwise. But I can’t promise anything.
The next day I wasn’t fit for much else aside from lazily wandering around town. Rio has some surprisingly cool old houses that reminded me of something you’d see in New Orleans or Savannah. I like old houses. Eventually I can see myself settling down in the Adams Family mansion. Eventually I found myself in the Centro district and standing outside the impressive looking Municipal Theater. These colonial style South American buildings always amaze me, can’t say why. This one was in the Parisian style rather than the usual Portuguese. A short walk away was the large Convent of Saint Anthony on top of the hill.This place contained the amazing golden church inside the Sao Francisco da Penitencia. Who knew nuns had so much money? Actually it always amazes me the amount of money tied up in religion. I see it repeated no matter where I go in the world. No matter how poor the neighbourhood – the church, temple, whatever, will always be well off. It’s quite sad that people are starving on the streets but the church has a fine stash of golden cups. God is vain and greedy is the only lesson I take from it. But then again people respond favorably to vanity and greed. It explains Kim Kardashian and the fact Donald Trump is a presidential candidate. Sorry, I’m getting side tracked. This is a travel blog so I’ll finish up by saying at least it’s nice to look at. That will do.
The next part would be tricky. From Rio I flew to the northern city of Boa Vista where nothing ever happens. Why? Well because of it’s proximity to the Venezuelan border. Two nights here to gather some things together and then take the bus across the border to the town of Santa Elena de Uairen. I arrived at an ungodly hour of the night. I had no place booked to stay because I couldn’t find anything online. The world’s grumpiest taxi driver wasn’t much help either, and after half a dozen stops at hotels charging outrageous prices he was just about ready to drop me off at the side of the road. Eventually we found what looked like a barn / drugs den outside of town. “Are you sure this place is safe?” I asked. “Yes of course, it’s no problem. Go inside. Go to sleep”. Well with an endorsement like that…..
It was 4.30 am so I wasn’t in the mood to argue either. We woke up a little kid so he could let me in. I was given a room containing a dirty mattress on top of some bricks, and a toilet that leaked across the floor when you flushed it. But hey it was $3 a night and I was convinced I’d get less diseases here then sleeping on the side of the road. Things were looking good. Unfortunately it took about two hours to walk into town to get anything to eat or drink, not that there was much in town either. Plenty of hardware stores for some reason but not much in the way of supplies for me. I decided to just focus on staying alive instead.
At another ungodly hour of the morning I found myself wandering around the town flagging town taxis to get to the bus station. I’d heard the day before that only one bus per day leaves to the border and that it goes pretty early. Not wanting to stay in Boa Vista much longer than necessary I was determined to get there in plenty of time. Not that it was necessary seeing as the thing turned up a few hours late. It didn’t actually go to Santa Elena either, instead depositing us at the border. I exchanged my Brazilian reals for Venezuelan bolivars from one of several dodgy looking guys. In return for about $120 worth of reals I got in exchange a black sack full of cash. “Make sure you hide that in your bag” he winked “they don’t like seeing you take over a lot of money”. How is it possible to not take over a lot of money? Exchanging a dollar would probably fill up a wallet. A few dollars more would leaden down your pockets making you look like a mafia drowning victim. I felt like a clown.
The Brazilian border formalities were anything but. They were enforcing a strict and confusing queuing system. I got yelled at a lot for reasons I still don’t fully understand. Once inside I was told that Ireland no longer exists and that I must be from the UK. I was pretty adamant that I knew the sovereignty of my own country.
“Are you sure?”
“No Ireland…..not on my computer. Must be UK”
“Try Republic of Ireland. It’s a republic”
“Since when? Recent?”
“Oh, almost one hundred years at this stage”
“Let’s see. Republic of Moldova, Republic of Congo….”
Each time looking at me for confirmation. No I’m not from the Congo. Because this was a relatively obscure south american border post I was beginning to think a bribe was being fished for, but I held out.
“Ah!” he finally exclaimed.
Who knew it would be under a Portuguese name in a Portuguese speaking country?! What a guy. He looked so genuinely pleased with himself too that he’d cracked the code.
After leaving Brazilian Sherlock behind I began the kilometer walk to the Venezuelan border post. It’s not a country you hear a lot about on the tourist trail so in many ways it was a bit of a walk into the unknown. Especially for a guy from a country that didn’t exist anymore in the english speaking world. Just how long had I been away?
Next time: I feel like a mafia don in Venezuela, and I finally reach the Lost World to look for dinosaurs. Will I make it out alive? Spoiler alert: I do.