Published: November 7th 2006November 7th 2006
Less than 24 hours after running 26.2 miles in the Chicago Marathon, I took my sore legs to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This economically diverse city has much to offer a curious traveler. Over 6 million people enjoy this mountainous coastal city which was colonized by the Portuguese over 500 years ago. Because South America is in the Southern Hemisphere, the seasons are opposite ours and thus the approaching Brazilian summer has contributed my sun burnt shoulders.
Many know Rio for the ecstasy of its Carnival celebration that belittles our Mardi Gras and perhaps for the beautiful coconut palm lined beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. In my travels, I have yet to find beach travelers more tanned and toned than in Copacabana, where I am spending the next weeks with Diego, a Guatemalan friend of mine who works and studies here. However, for me there are joys in traveling aside from sights, foods, or experiences. It is the learning that comes along with understanding and first hand exposure to the places seen on TV that interests me.
Arrangements for a friend and me to sit in on an International Relations class at the Pontificate Catholic University in Rio were
so interesting. The class syllabus for the day was on addressing the Rwanda Conflict and understanding the world’s efforts or lack thereof in aiding their people. Sitting amongst so many Cariocas (Rio natives) and attending a class at the university made me feel more Carioca than tourist.
Another experience brought me to a Forum for Social Participation put on by activists and Non-Governmental Organization leaders. It was amazing to witness South American leaders discussing strategies of change for bettering their country. My opening and closing comments were in Spanish, but the attendees understood me, as Spanish is a common language intellectual Brazilians understand and many times can speak. Following the forum, we had lunch with a couple leaders including Rio’s recently announced Director for the United Nations Children's Fund. Naturally, I had many questions for her. She took us to Viva Rio, Brazil’s largest NGO, where she and my friend work. On the walls there were inspiring posters of the United Nations Development Programme and its progress in Africa and other countries around the world.
Hearing of some of the challenges faced here and against some well intended advice; I left the clean streets of Copacabana to wander
aimlessly into a favela. The favelas or shantytowns of Brazil are located on the mountainsides or in valleys. With little infrastructure and even less care from the government, the millions of people living in the favelas are with little hope of bright futures. The layout of a favela is a maze of randomly constructed homes made from any material that is available and affordable. The shacks are connected by cement steps leading up the mountainside. As I tried to imagine the life of a favelado (shantytown dweller) and the destitute of their spiraling poverty, I could parallel many similarities to the inequalities I witnessed in the black communities in South Africa. However, I was quick to notice the children wore smiles on their faces and I received a thumbs up from one of the boys. The expectations we set for ourselves are next to impossible for favelados.
It interested me greatly to learn of the iconic role Brazil plays in that it is able to accomplish large scale bio-fuel production with decreasingly less use of gasoline. All buses and taxis here are powered by sugar ethanol which burns at a more efficient rate than corn ethanol. There are billboards
which boast Brazil’s freedom from Middle Eastern oil. Gasoline is still available from Brazil’s reserves but at a much higher price. Clearly they are on the right track when it comes to alternative fuel sources for finite oil supplies. To put this into perspective it is US$4.42 per gallon for gasoline and just US$2.64 per gallon for sugar alcohol.
I do my reading, running, and relaxing on the beaches. It has been sunny and in the 80’s so fresh coconut drinks served in actual coconuts have surely influenced my liking of this beautiful place. Rio is a city on the Atlantic Ocean that impractically wraps around mountains forming this perfect blend of nature and cosmopolitan life. To appreciate this fusion, my friends and I took the third longest cable car in the world up to Pão de Açúcar (Sugar Loaf Mountain) an amazing 1,319 feet above sea level. There we experienced a panoramic view of the sun setting over Guanabara Bay, Rio de Janeiro and its span of mountains.
Rio is as diverse a city as any I’ve seen. From world famous beaches and five star hotels of Copacabana that host politicians, royalty, and Hollywood stars to the
difficult and impossible circumstances in the favelas, there is as wide a gap between the rich and poor as ever. It’s all relative and there is reasoning for it all, yet I’m just beginning to learn.
Brazilians exist in an amazing culture where what I would consider an uncommon sight is normal here. While swimming trunks and one piece swim suits are worn in the US, Brazilians don their Speedos and undersized bikinis on the beach as well in shopping centers and supermarkets. On Saturday, I even saw a lady enjoying a can of beer while shopping for her groceries in the supermarket. One evening run along Rio’s elite beach path, I stopped to do push-ups by a bench and saw an unfortunately common homeless man sleeping just behind the bench. More of a shock for me was the sight of transvestites on the same block as the luxurious Copacabana Palace. Such culture is by no means better or worse than what we have in the US. However, I will say first-hand cultural exposure is the greatest way to value and understand differences be it Brazil or Bellevue.
A recent venture outside Rio de Janeiro took us to
Ilha Grande, an ecological island preserve in Rio State. There were no vehicles (aside from the island’s one police car) permitted on the island. We used water taxis and walking paths that wound through the island’s tropical terrain to get to the beaches, cafés, and small shops. Our clean and simple hostel was an affordable $8 per night each. In addition to hiking trails and beautiful beaches, we visited a prison once used to house African slaves during slave trade and later for political prisoners during recent dictatorships. Brazil imported more African slaves (3.5 million) than any country in the Americas to create and work the many sugar plantations. In 1888, Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery.
The Day of the Dead is an Aztec holiday which honors the lives of the deceased and celebrates the continuation of life. Their belief is that death is not the end, but rather the beginning of a new stage in life. While Americans celebrate Halloween, Brazilians and Mexicans regard the Day of the Dead is a national holiday. My Mexican and Guatemalan friends and I used the extended weekend to rent a car to rendezvous along the
coastline of Sao Paulo state. Many Paulistas (São Paulo citizens) did the same, as the beaches were packed. We visited Projeto Tamar, a collaborating project of Brazilian scientists, marine biologists and researchers with partners around the world to save sea turtles from extinction. Sea turtles have a .1% chance of survival from poachers, fishermen, and sharks after birth. In the last 25 years Projeto Tamar has released in excess of 5 million sea turtles into the oceans. We also visited an aquarium, Amazonian zoo, an auto museum, and last but not least the beaches!
A week before US midterm elections, Brazilians went to the poles and re-elected President Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva (Lula) for his second term. I found it interesting that voting in Brazil is compulsory for all literate citizens from 18 to 70 years of age. Half a century of military dictatorships ended in 1985 when the military regime peacefully ceded power to civilian rulers. Because of this recent history there is a great deal at stake and some reluctance in electing a president in Brazil. However, there are positive changes being made here every day.
Physique means a great deal to beach goers in Brazil. I did a little experiment to quantify body culture on Rio's lively beaches. During 10 mile run along a beach bike path, I counted a grand total of 400 or so other runners of all ages and sizes running and sharing the path with me. I did not count walkers, bikers or those lifting weights in the outdoor beach weight training centers. Yes, there are actually small gyms on the beach here. I’m not sure how I would deal with 400 runners sharing the beautiful river path with me in Bellevue. In a roundabout way my silly little experiment authorizes so many Brazilians to sport those bikinis and Speedos with such liberation!