Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Few Weeks in Rio

I wish I spoke Portuguese.

I arrived in Brazil about a month ago. My flight went overnight from Dulles to São Paulo, and after unloading some passengers in São Paulo continued on to Rio. Myriam, the other American here for the MDP, offered (or, was likely coercively asked) to pick me up at the airport. And thank God, because – recurring theme here – I wish I spoke Portuguese.

It has quickly become apparent that the delay in communications from Brazil is in large part due to the fact that none of them actually speak English. All prior communications with me have been done via Google Translate. Hopefully this means that I will learn to speak Portuguese in short order due to immersion. What it means now, though, is that I feel like I’m drowning. Emilia’s first sentence to me, to be fair, was in English. However it was “Good to meet you. Now we speak Portuguese.”

I took the bus with Myriam to her apartment in Copacabana, and then headed back across town to my first couchsurf, in Santa Theresa. While Copacabana is all high rises and flat streets, Santa Theresa is built into a steep hill with winding cobblestone passageways and old colonial-style houses. Copa feels very modern in comparison, while Santa Theresa has a bohemian hipster vibe (as supported by the organic cafes on every corner).
View from the front stoop of my couchsurf

Santa Teresa

Emilia, the admin assistant for the Rio MDP, knows EVERYONE in Santa Theresa, including my  host, Wanderley! Such a coincidence. She and her best friend Malu were straight champions and took me under their wing that first week, especially since I was absolutely cramping their style with my lack of Portuguese, and my jetlagged bedtimes (I keep speaking Spanish, but I think people are comprehending my gesticulation more so than my shitty Spanish, and they certainly aren’t getting my Portuglish -ie, attempting to use all random Portuguese nouns that I can remember within English sentences).

On my first day,  I took a walking tour of the Santa Teresa neighborhood and checked out the Parque de Ruinas. The park is a former rich lady’s residence, that is on the top of a hill with 360 degree views of Rio. The house was starting to crumble, but has been reinforced, and a café was added. The views are SPECTACULAR. Rio is a city that has been fortunate enough to be built into a really gorgeous landscape. For a person like me (who is interested in the intersection between urbanisation and conservation), this is a fascinating place.
Concert at the Parque das Ruinas
View from the Parque das Ruinas

Monday morning I woke up early to head into the MDP office and attempt to find the people I've been emailing. This was not a success, but after a day of lurking, I did find several MDP students. That afternoon they were planning to go down and check out the first of the protests that were scheduled to happen all across Brazil. They invited me to join them, although they were very concerned for my safety. The African students opted to not go at all due to safety and visa concerns. I admit, I was a bit nervous, especially because I had been reading about how violent these protests had been getting. Everything was fine though, and very exciting. A good introduction to Brazil.

We went to the start of the Rio protests and were there as people were amassing. There was a lot of chanting I couldn’t understand, and the students tried the best they could to translate. Then we joined in the beginning of the procession, although we left before things got violent. In the end 100,000 people were a part of the protest/march in Rio alone, and things got quite violent. There was a lot of vandalism, and cars set on fire, and buildings broken into. Tear gas and riot police everywhere. This pattern was repeated several times during my first two weeks, although things have settled somewhat. The protests continue though. Suffice to say that they have been very exciting to attend, and somewhat scary later, and that I am excited and feel fortunate to be here in Brazil during such an exciting time for the country.
Riot police prepping for protests 
Bank prepping for protest. Dumpster, not tank.

I spent a lot of free time/reading time on the beach during those first two weeks. It was pretty. Since it’s “winter” there weren't many people at the beach, but to me, it has been perfect beach weather. 85, sunny. The ocean is warm and the sand is soft. Not even a seashell or small stone or seaweed icky in sight.

Copacabana Beach

One evening I went up the Pão de Açucar to watch the sunset. Whisked away up the cable car, and made it just in time to grab a beer and some pão de quejito before sunset. The views were incredible. Incredible incredible. I’m so glad I googled and was given the recommendation to go here at sunset.
View of Rio from Pão de Açucar

Beer and Cheesy Bread!

Sunset from Pão de Açucar

For the final days of that first week I attended a seminar on sustainable development that the other MDP students were hosting. It was all in Portuguese, and I was quite lost and overwhelmed the whole time. I feel bad, because I didn’t get much out of it at all. But I tried to look like I was paying attention, and now and again attempted to translate words that seemed important.

Almost a week after arriving, I finally got to meet with Flavia and Rodrigo to discuss the summer plans in a bit more detail. Essentially, I learned that the Bonfim area is currently within the boundaries of the national park, but soon it won’t be. The neighborhood is being rezoned (after the long petitioning of the residents), and will become a protected area instead. This means that many restrictions currently placed on residents will be lifted. The school wants me to find out how their lives will change with this rezoning, and specifically, how these life changes will affect the land/area around Bonfim.

This is going to be very, very difficult for me, as I lack the language skills necessary for it. I hope I can figure out some sort of system where I can record people’s responses, and then play them back very slowly while I attempt to translate (or work with a translator). It should be very interesting, and humbling, at the least.

This first weekend I went up to the Bonfim area with Yara, a friend of the program. As far as I can gather, Yara is a very important person in Rio conservation circles, and seems to have been the former president of pretty much everything conservation related around here. She may or may not be an MDP professor. She and her husband, Charlie, live in Pedro do Rio, which is about a half hour drive north of Bonfim.

One night while I was there we went to watch the soccer game (Brazil vs. Italy) at their friends’ house. Charlie is from Italy (though he’s been living in Brazil for 30 something years), so he took a lot of flack from the others throughout the game. It was a good soccer game, but even more incredible was the house we were at! The house itself was huge and gorgeous, but the real star was the game room on the side. The game room had a bowling alley, a ping pong table and a pool table. And they were all the nicest equipment possible. The hosts kept apologizing that all of the equipment was from 1948, but obviously that made it such gorgeous quality. Plus, the only other person I know with a bowling alley in their house is Mr. Obama. The bowling alley was mahogany, the billiards table one of those old timey ones with the low hanging lights. It was such a treat to hang out in.
Bowling in someone's living room
The second day I went into Correas and Bonfim to go househunting for the summer – the whole point of the trip. Bonfim is gorgeous. It’s nestled into the mountains, and right up against the park. I took an earlier bus than expected, which ended up not taking me the whole way – it dropped me at the bottom of the hill, about 3 km from where I needed to be to meet Robson, my Bonfim contact. I started to walk up the hill, but then was passed by a truck hauling lettuce. Knowing that my destination was also the headquarters of the local vegetable coop, I hailed him down and got a ride the rest of the way. Very nice lettuce truck man. Robson showed me a few potential places to live. I managed to find a good one, and then it was back to Rio for another two weeks. 
Preview of my new digs
I moved into a new couchsurf, this time in Catete. I shared a bedroom with a French guy who was in Rio trying to start up a patisserie business. He introduced himself as Jeff, but in retrospect I have a feeling it may have been JF - as in Jean Francois or something. 

On Wednesday I went with Yara, Flavia and Myriam to the Seropedica campus of UFRRJ. It’s the actual, main campus of the university. The grounds were absolutely gorgeous and overrun with wild capybaras (which I found delightful). We went in because Yara and Flavia both had classes to teach, and I wanted to see the campus.  I spent an hour wandering around campus, and then sat through Flavia’s lecture on biodiversity. 

UFRRJ at Seropedica
On Thursday the weather looked like it would be good, and I knew I was going to be free, so I woke up early and went up Corcovado. I caught the first train (8:30), which was wise as I was at the summit with only about 10 other people. Based on other photographs I’ve seen, it looks like later in the day there are several hundred up there and you really have to fight to get any photos. The train itself was pretty cool. It was the first electric train in Brazil, and took about 20 minutes to get to the top of the mountain. There were a few stops along the way in various neighborhoods.

At the top of course is the Christo himself. It really is pretty amazing. The fact that it’s so big, and the fact that it’s there at all. Those two things together, coupled with the fact that it’s on such a precipitous cliff – it’s really quite an incredible feat. I hung out on the top for about an hour. It was warm, and uncrowded, but unfortunately as I had been headed up the mountain a thick fog had rolled in over Rio. I thought maybe it was early morning mists that would burn off, but the longer I waited the thicker the fog got. I did get a few photos in earlier on of the tops of the Sugarloaf and other peaks peaking through the fog, and by the time I left at 10 you couldn't even see those – just clouds. The Christo himself is high enough though that it was still sunny and gorgeous at the top.
Christo Redentor

Obligatory Photo

Foggy view from Corcovado

On Saturday I went to Ipanema beach, got a coconut, and sat for a while reading through a few of the pdfs I’ve been meant to get through. 

I walked over to the rocks on the Copacabana side just in time for a fantastic sunset. While I was sitting on the rocks watch the sunset, Jeff/JF, my French roommate, showed up. Small world. We watched the sunset together and then walked back to Catete, stopping for a beer on Copacabana on the way. When we got back his friend called and asked if we were interested in going out to Lapa. Of course I was, so I tagged along. We had a drink in Lapa (although I still haven’t “been out” in Lapa since I don't know anyone here to go clubbing with), and then his friend suggested samba school. I was thrilled, and we piled into a cab.
Ipanema Sunset

Rocks to watch the sunset from

The school wasn’t quite ready to start when we pulled in at 11pm (silly), so we went across the street for the strongest and cheapest caprinhas I’ve ever had (5R$). Back across the street and a 10R$ cover for the samba school. I wasn’t really sure what to expect, as I had been told we were going to a samba school. I thought maybe we were taking a class or something. Not so. There was a massive live band, and a ton of samba performers. It was (or so I was told, since I haven’t experienced it myself), Carnival-lite. These are the same troupes that perform for carnival, so we were just seeing them during their offseason rehearsal performances – kind of like a scrimmage.
Samba Band

The samba was incredible. Everyone on the sidelines was dancing too, and I made a valiant effort to join in. We were there until about 4am, although the samba wasn’t done yet. Finally Jeff/JF had had enough and suggested we go home. I was glad he did, because I was exhausted. I just didn’t want to suggest leaving yet as I was having fun, and also didn’t want to be the lame killjoy. 




Sunday I walked to Centro and learned very quickly that Centro is not a place to go on the weekends. It was utterly abandoned and every shop was boarded up. Super creepy. On Sunday night I went with my couchsurfing host to meet his friends at a restaurant/bar down the street to watch the final match in the Confederations Cup. Spain vs. Brazil – a matchup that hasn’t happened for years. It was the two dream teams of soccer, so I was pretty excited to watch a good game. The first half was pretty incredible. Brazil scored in the second minute (Fred) with a goal that bordered on being a dangerous play. One other goal for Brazil in the first half, an amazing left hook off Neymar. The second half was more boring. More scoring for Brazil, and it was like Spain got tired and gave up. But, a fun night, and I’m glad I got to watch the game with other people.

Tuesday I ran into Yara on my way home because she was headed to her daughter’s apartment, which was just down the block from where I was staying. She ended up taking me along to meet her daughter, and then I ended up at dinner with the two of them and Charlie. Yara’s daughter, Marina, is my age and a doctor in the first year of her residency. Towards the end of dinner, Marina realized a friend of hers, Thomas, was in town, so she called him up. He met us right as Yara and Charlie left, and I hung out with them for a few more hours. Towards the end of the night, Marina offered me her apartment as a place to stay. She said she was going to have a busy week, and probably wouldn’t even be sleeping there, so she needed someone to feed the cats. 

On Wednesday, I spent the morning repacking my things and moved to Marina's. I managed to fit my smaller suitcase inside of the larger suitcase, and I was so thrilled. When I packed to come to Brazil, I ended up taking two cases because of the weight limit on the plane. I figured it wouldn’t be a big deal, because I would only need to move them once – from my initial place in Rio to Bonfim, and then back to Dublin. However, that has turned out not to be the case, as I’ve gone from Santa Teresa to Petropolis to Catete to Marina’s to Bonfim, and it’s only the beginning of July. Not only are the two cases inconvenient, but they make me look like the world’s biggest over packer.  So I was excited to be able to consolidate.

Wednesday afternoon I "celebrated" the 4th in Flamengo park. It was my first 4th sans celebration and other Americans. Weird.
Happy 4th!

Sugarloaf from Flamengo Park

Thursday I headed to the Banco de Brazil museum to see the Elles exhibit. The museum is really cool. It’s an old old bank, so all of the exhibit rooms are inside of old bank vaults – some of the doors even had the giant combination locks on the outside. The elevator was a cage that needed an operator. That alone was worth a visit. The exhibit was interesting – it was on female artists in modern movements, basically from 1900 to the late 70s. Interesting work, although the majority was a bit intense and confusing.

Sunday I woke up, packed my things (into one bag again!) and then headed over to the airport parking lot where I was meant to meet everyone to drive up to Petropolis. I’ll pick up here the next chance I have to write.

Me on the Escadaria Selarón 


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