Are you ready to samba?

“Well, there it is. The Jesus.” Arthur, one of the UN General Services staff stood next to me as we both looked up at the 130 foot statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain in Rio de Janeiro. Since the negotiations had been turned over to the Brazilians on Saturday, our workload was significantly lessened for this morning, Sunday. As a result myself and three other staff members had scrambled to book an “Express Tour” from the hotel in order to quickly check out some of the biggest sites and be back by 2pm. Looking around the Christ the Redeemer statue, we saw that many of the other staff members had done the same. As we sighted them around the statue they shot us sheepish looks and a quick wave.

“Well, I’m satisfied now–I’ve done ‘Rio’, ” said Dornella, another staff member on our tour. And to some extent that seemed true–all we had heard from the locals was: “Have you been to Corcovado?” We then went about taking pictures mimicking the statue and making it look like we were holding hands with Jesus, just like everyone else at the site.

A few more photo ops and soon we were wizzing down the rollercoaster ride of the trail leading down the Corcovado mountain. And once again our guide, Warley, fed us what was obviously his favorite joke:
“Are you ready to sambaaaa?”
“Yes!” the ten of us in the van shouted.
“I can’t hear you!”
And then the van hit the intense bumping and rumbling of the cobblestone streets at the foot of the mountain and Warley dissolved into giggles:
“There! That is how you samba!” He had done this on the way up too.

We then began to pass some of the Favelas on our way to take in the view from the top of another peak, Sugarloaf Mountain. I first discovered what these were when trying to figure out where I would stay for the interim of my housing. On Google Maps something called “Favelas” was popping up everywhere on the map. “Favela Vidigal”, “Favela Fazenda”, “Favela Morro dos Cabritos”…I finally called over a Brazilian staff member to ask for help on finding a good location and asked, “So is “Favela” Portugeuse for ‘town’?” She gave me a funny look and smiled, and said the best way was to “show” me what a Favela was, and had me Google it. I quickly saw that it was a kind of slum or shantytown community housing.  “Yeah, don’t stay in or near those, ok? They are very dangerous, ” she warned.

On the way past them, I was amazed by how tightly packed the houses were, and how they were built right into the sides of the mountain on steep hills. Why here? Our guide Warley then told us that while there was utter lawlessness in many of them several years ago, with drug gangs ruling the areas, the police have staged effective interventions such that rule of law and more public services are now able to be present within. Apparently public administrators are pushing to have them renamed “Communities”, and not Favelas to take away the stigma, and hostels and inns are opening in the heart of many of them.  Still, while there I never heard a single Brazilian refer to them as “Communities”….

“Look to your left–the mountain! No tax!” Warley directed us to look at Sugarloaf Mountain which we were approaching, using another one of his favorite jokes. There is no retail tax in Rio and as a result Warley had been adding no tax onto a plethora of other free items, such as lovely vistas.

Riding up to Sugarloaf Mountain in the cable car, we could see that Corcovado was now covered in a thick casing of clouds, which prompted Warley to boast proudly that he had taken us up there just in time–and we couldn’t disagree.

Half-way up, Warley positioned each of us to take the “typical shot” of each of us holding the tip of the mountain, and I couldn’t help but think that for everyone that comes to Rio, there must be thousands of these same shots–holding the top of Sugarloaf, imitating the Corcovado statue…I was happy to get out and see some of the sites of Rio with the tour, but it made me desperately want to get out on my own with a Rough Guide book next time. But hey–when you’ve only got 5 hours and are stranded in an area without good public transport, what can you do? Rio is one of the most gorgeous cities I’ve ever seen (90% of that being the view from the beaches), and it seems all you have to do to enjoy it is find some way to get around.
“Look! Down there is a private beach called Red Beach…no tax!” shouted Warley.

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