Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Brazil: Hot and Rainy times in Rio

How to describe Rio? Sometimes she smiled upon us, and sometimes we tripped on her dog poop, but all in all, we found her deliciously seductive and kept coming back for more. Through a series of lucky coincidences, we found ourselves only the second guests in an amazingly grand yet cosy bed and breakfast that had just opened in Santa Teresa, a neighborhood of artists, musicians, and those who love them. Settling into the former mansion of one of Rio`s governors (oh la la), we took to the cobblestoned streets with caipirinhas in hand to hunt down the riches of Rio`s many treasures.

First stop, of course, the beaches. While there wasn`t quite as much outrageous thong bikini-ogling as we`d hoped (it was a little overcast), we fell in love with this man in his BRAZIL bathing suit strolling the oceanfront. Forget the Girl from Ipanema, this man personified Brazilian fashion. And that`s saying something in a country where the heels are higher, the skirts are shorter, and the shirts are tighter than any we`ve ever experienced. Next we made our way to the Botanical Gardens to observe some lush greenery (and cheeky monkeys and sluggish turtles) before strolling alongside the lake to watch twinkling lights come on as Rio came to life. Returning to our neighborhood after midnight, we arrived to find a street party choking the streets as live samba music spilled out of a local cafe and temporary bars were erected in the street. Hello Rio nightlife! We spent the next week soaking up as much of Rio as we could.

Highlights included the Escadaria Selaron, over 200 colorfully mosaiced stairs leading from Santa Teresa to Lapa. The work of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron, they have been a labor of love since 1990, and invariably you`ll find the artist there himself giving them a little elbow grease. Originally using the vibrant colors of Brazil`s flag as his inspiration, Selaron has exanded the work to include the colors of many different nations. A frequent theme is the image of a pregnant woman in the favelas (Rio`s poorst communities.) The stairs have become an international hit, with celebrities filming music videos (Snoop Dogg among them), and hundreds of people coming to admire his work.

You`d think that living in a city replete with cable cars, we`d be too jaded to enjoy Santa Teresa`s bonde, but no! Every time it whooshed across the oft-photographed Arcos do Lapa toward downtown we giggled with glee (some of us only inwardly). The last of Rio`s once numerous streetcars, the yellow bonde has been in operation since 1861, and sometimes it feels like maybe they haven`t updated too much, but that`s half the excitement. While already cheap, it`s free if you stand! This is a far cry from the outrageous extortionary prices of San Francisco`s equivalent.

Rio was often a fickle friend, choosing to close her restarants and bars despite stated opening hours to the contrary, enjoying random holidays that prevented us from doing laundry and visiting musems, and teasing us with sun followed quickly by rain. But drizzling skies meant beer-fueled Hearts tournaments in neighborhood cafes, which wasn`t all bad, even if it didn`t do wonders for our savage tans. We loved the contrasts of Rio life---from high tea in the opulent Cafe Columbo to fried fish on the sidewalk in Urca. And, of course, there are Rio`s greatest hits, including Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer). While a must-see on the list of every Rio tourist, Cristo was a bit of a can`t-see in our case. But we held hands, and then everything was allright. Recently deemed one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (a perhaps slightly dubious distinction that was garnered through a little poll stuffing, although that`s a different story), Cristo is an amazing sight no matter what the weather. Standing over 130 feet tall, the iconic statue is visible from nearly every corner in Rio. Construction spanned over five years, and the monument was publicly celebrated in 1931. On its 75th birthday, a chapel was added, where Catholic Brazilians can celebrate weddings and baptisms.

Determined to catch aerial views of Rio`s splendor, we also made our way up Paco do Azucar (Sugarloaf Mountain) on a series of cablecars. Like all good Cariocas (Rio dwellers), she puts on her dazzling best in the evening, and we watched her sparkle from afar as the sun set. Heading to Copacabana, we samba-ed on the sidewalks with drunken tourists (or rather Kristina sama-ed, while we lurched about) and then ate pineapple and sirloin sandwiches at a late-night haunt called Cervantes. Deeeeeeeee-lish!

We knew that Rio would not be complete if we didn`t stay out dancing until 5am at least one night, so we taxi-ed over to Lapa, the throbbing heart of the city´s nightlife. Standing in line for nearly 2 hours, we set foot in Rio Scenarium just after 2am. It did not disappoint. An old antique shop turned multi-level dance hall, the Scenarium is rich with crazy ecletic decor, fervent dancing, New Orlean´s style balconies, and pumping live music. We faked forro moves (basically intertwined legs and lots of turning around) while Kristina broke countless hearts sashaying across the dance floor with various suitors. Forro music is experiencing a bit of a renaissance in Brazil. Originally born in WWII American military bases in Brazil`s northeastern countryside, the music stemmed from dances that were open´for all´(since altered to the Portuguese forro). A mix of musical styles (including the accordion, African drums, and the triangle) accompanied songs lamenting the tough life of the working hand, and the trials and tribulations of falling in love. While initially snubbed in the city as backward countryfolk music, the sound achieved great popularity in the 1990s when it was modernized with electric guitars and rediscovered by the entire nation. True to our word, we stayed until the party ended and danced back to our hotel just after 5am.

Another notable excursion was taking the ferry to Niteroi, where we admired Niemeyer`s architectural gem in Rio, the contemporary art museum. Coincidentally, it featured the work of a Portuguese artist, Rigo 23, who lives in San Francisco and painted the one tree mural that`s right near our apartment. Oh, small world. And, of course, having spent much time in Bahian capoeira schools, it was only appropriate that we had a match on the beach in Rio. Kathleen won.

We had every hope of filling our bellies to bursting at a churrasqueria, but some of the price tags got us down. We opted intead for boiled corn and a beer on the beach at sunset, a decision that had disastrous consequences on Kathleen`s stomach. Next time, we`ll fork over for the good meat (pun intended...who could resist?). Unfillfilled dreams also mean a reason to return. Other reasons to come back to Rio are the addictive artistic creations of bondelandia man, a Santa Teresa artist who crafts quirky plastic men and women (and birds) out of recycled materials. These became a bit of a theme of our time in Rio, as we kept going back to his workshop (which was a ramshackle wooden bonde car that he`d set up on a street corner and sometimes slept in) hoping to buy new and different creations. But while he didn`t always have what we wanted, we eventually fell in love with what he did offer. In many ways, Rio didn`t always offer what we expected, but we were seduced by her charms once we took them for what they were.

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