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Published: October 26th 2007
What do you do when you meet someone who lives one the other side of the world? What do you do when you hate your job so much, you cant wait to tell your boss to go and... "pleasure himself"?? Well you jump on a plane and fly to Rio de Janeiro of course...
I met Carla, who's a Carioca native, in Berlin and really hit it off. Since I've always wanted to go to Brazil anyway, I thought this is the best excuse. After nearly missing my connection in Madrid and actually passing out on the plane from lack of food and sleep, I arrived in Rio late on a Thursday afternoon. Seeing Carla again was great and our first stop was a restaurant in an area called Botafogo, which had excellent views of Botafogo beach and Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain)
Rio de Janeiro! Cidade Maravilhosa (The Marvelous City). When one thinks of Brazil, Rio is usually the first place that springs to mind. With it's breathtaking natural setting and stunning beaches, Rio could well be one of most beautiful cities in the world. The Caipirinhas flow free, the flawless bronzed bodies stir around the picture perfect
beaches while 70 000+ people go ballistic at Maracanã football stadium. The sun sets behind lush green forest covered mountains and Christo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) looks down across the city. Well known for its Samba music and annual Carnaval celebrations, the city has a culture recognisable the world over. It sounds like paradise on earth but as with anywhere it has its problems. Although known for these fantastic drawcards, Rio is also known violence, over crowding, favelas
(shanty towns), congestion, drug crime and balas perdidas
(stray bullets). People look at figures that compare the violence in Rio to that of Kabul or Baghdad but honestly, if you visit sensibly and follow a few simple, if not obvious rules, you'll be fine.
The first thing I noticed while driving around town was how I definitely wasn't in the EU anymore. Being used to orderly streets and well kept neighbourhoods, Rio came as a reminder of where I wasn't anymore. Yet, I could see many people hitting the bars and indulging in some street-side shopping so already felt an energy that is hard to feel in the somewhat stale EU.
My first full day in the city happened to
be Carla's Auntie's birthday. We made the short trip to her house where I was greeted with open arms by the whole family, and I mean the WHOLE family. I shook hands, patted backs, kissed and hugged my way through the mother, auntie, brother, brother's girlfriend, god daughter, auntie, auntie's husband, step father, grand mother, grand father etc... in fact everyone except the father who lives in Brasília. What made this vastly different from every other family I've met is the fact that there was very little english spoken. Her mother could say a few bits and pieces, her brother and his girlfriend spoke a fair bit of english but other than that, Carla did a lot of translating. I offered up a few of my newly learned Portuguese words which attracted a few smiles. Her grandfather tried to strike up a conversation all night which was interesting in two languages.. Felipe (Carla's brother) told me that it's probably good that I didn't speak Portuguese because I would have to listen to his anecdotes all night. Somehow I managed to be charming enough to be liked by the whole family which was a relief.
Part one ended as I
went through the same greeting ritual in reverse to say goodbye to the family and we headed out for part two where I was then going to meet Carla's friends. We went to a club called Hide Away and I greeted everyone with the traditional two kisses. Her friends spoke at least a little english but were too afraid/shy/lazy to speak it so I kind of felt a little on the outside. As with many places in Rio, the club gave you a card at the door with your name on it which you gave to the bar tender everytime you ordered something. At the end of the night you take it to the counter and pay. As a guy I pay at least R$30 anyway so I thought it best to drink R$30 worth of Caipirinhas. Brazil's most famous cocktail is simple yet to create the perfect Caipirinha is an artform. Correctly blending Cachaça (a Brazilian liquor made from sugarcane juice) ice, sugar and lime can be tricky but pulling it off perfectly creates a drink that could almost be argued as the taste of Brazil.
The first big tourist thing we did was go to Pão de
Carla and I on Pão de Açúcar
That's Copacabana Beach in the backround
Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). Everyone who comes to Rio visits Pão de Açúcar and for good reason. An icon for the city and giving unparalleled views of it, Pão de Açúcar is a sure fire tourist attraction. Connected to the groung by two gondolas, the first reaching the top of Morro da Urca then the second to Pão de Açúcar. We were there just around the end of the day so were treated to a spectacular sunset of the city behind Christo.
The following day we went to "the beach". Even though there are nearly 50 beaches throughout Rio, Ipanema is the one known to Carla just as "the beach". Ipanema is in the Zona Sul (South zone) and is pretty much the Beverly Hills of Rio. Ipanema, Leblon, Lagoa. These are the areas where every Carioca aspires to live. The palm tree lined streets are well kept, the buildings are attractive and Ipanema/Leblon beach is one of Rio's most beautiful. We clammered into one of the many juice bars and I sampled my first Açaí
juice. Açaí is a fuit found in the Amazon and when made for the masses in Ipanema, it turns out as a very dark
purple drink. Açaí is like a smoothy eaten with a spoon.
We then headed to Ipanema beach, hired a few chairs and took in the carioca lifestyle. Perfectly tanned and well maintained bodies walk around in their bikinis and beach wear. The amount of games taking place is staggering. Every 5 metres or so there is a game of volleyball, futevôlei
(essentially a game of volleyball but without using hands), frescobol
(a game of two players each holding a wooden racket hitting a small rubber ball back and forth) or just kicking a football around like hackey sack. There are endless streems of people trying to sell everything from coconut water to crap for wearing. Being a weekend, the beach was pretty much packed and there was almost no room to do anything but just kick back and relax. The aesthetic value of the beach is stunning though. Golden sands stretch to the beautiful green peaks at the end with the not so beautiful Vidigal Favela spilling down the hill.
That night it was time for one of the things I desperately wanted to do while in Rio, go to a football game at Maracanã. This stadium, which
used to be the largest in the world holding over 200 000 people (now 95 000) is almost football's holy grail. Nearly every Brazilian child dreams of playing at Maracanã. Tonight was also time for a match up between two of Rio biggest adversaries, Flamengo and Fluminense. In fact just this match up is so hotly contested that it is locally known as a "Fla-Flu" match. Carla's team is Flamengo and while usually I go for the other team of the people I'm surrounded by, doing that at Maracanã is a serious personal safety risk. To understand Brazil, it's almost necessary to go to a game here. The atmosphere and madness at Maracanã is extreme with drums pounding, smoke bombs, huge flags and on some occasions (if your team is loosing) things like cups of urine and dead chickens can be hurled around. Football is well known as Brazil's national obsession and supporting your local team is an undying commitment. In fact, people support their local team a lot more passionately than their national team so going to a Fla-Flu match could well be the most exciting sporting event you'll ever attend.
Going to a game at Maracanã has
rules which start before you even leave home. Just some are as follows;
- Clothes: What you are going to wear depends on a few factors. Usually something very casual that has a few secure pockets to put the small amount of valubles you're going to take. Carla chose not to wear her Flamengo jersey because we were catching the metro to the game.
- What to take: The less the better. But essentials are; Ticket, ID and a SMALL amount of money (just enough to get you there and back with maybe a bit more for luxuries like Cerveja (beer).
- Transport: The Metro is the safest way to get the game but the station is on the Fluminense side of stadium. This is why Carla didn't wear her Flamengo jersey, yet most people were.
- Where to sit: Yes for personal safety, you STRICTLY sit in your own teams side of the stadium. In fact, they actually sell the tickets in two seperate locations to avoid confrontations between fans. We saw many Polícia with automatic weapons just hanging around when buying tickets.
We met a friend of Carla's who didn't speak english so as the three
of us got off the train and walked over the bridge towards Maracanã, we saw a sea of people flooding the area and streets around the stadium. Hundreds of Polícia bearing automatic machine guns and teargas launchers were keeping a keen eye of the revellers. Loads of people were selling drinks, food, jerseys and other stuff but it was the excitment in everyones eyes was the thing that caught my attention. We even heard a kid chanting, Carla laughed as she translated what he was saying to me which involved a lot of things about Flamengo players that no young child shoud ever say. We continued around the stadium, as I got caught up in the excitment of the moment I spoke too loud and Carla told me to keep my voice down. I would find out later why. Before I knew what was happening we started running along with many other people around us. I looked back and didn't see anything out of the ordinary. I asked what was going on and Carla said that someone yelled "Run, there is a fight". I gave her a confused look. A couple of blokes punching it out, who cares? But apparently
the kind of fights you get at Maracanã are the kind of ones you don't want to be anywhere near, especially if the Polícia show up to stop it.
We pass through the gates and up the long ramp towards the seats. As we get to the top there is a line of Polícia standing there and they don't let you past unless you hold up your shirt to show you don't have any weapons tucked into your shorts. Walking further around the stadium's interior to find our section and once we do, we walk towards where you watch the game. As I walk out into the stadium and look at the madness already in progress before the game had even started, even Carla, who has been to many games here turns to me with a huge smile on her face. The atmosphere was already electric and nothing had started yet. We push our way through the sea of red and black jerseys to find a spot, not our seat. They have seats at Maracanã but no one uses them, everyone just stands where ever there is even the smallest bit of space. Just as we find a spot,
the players start to take the field to a huge ovation. Thats when it all came out. The crowd started to ignite smoke bombs that emit thick choking smoke in a brilliant bright light. Enormous flags wave around, some so big they covered an entire section of the crowd. Deafening songs were being sung and chanted by the people. One big section just down from us had a large selections of drums that were being pounded relentlessly and provided a beat all night. I looked around at some of the screaming fans, their eyes wide and focused, their faces serious, holding proudly their flag above their heads, it almost looked like soldiers about to enter battle. I could feel the stadium actually shaking from the noise and pounding of feet. I couldn't help but laugh in amazment at the energy around me as it sent shivers up my spine.
Things settled down, if just enough for the game to begin. It was hard to see at first as there still was thick smoke filling air but there was a problem, Fluminense scored! Even though we were on the other side of the stadium, there was a tumultuous roar from
the Fluminese side and people on my side were rubbing their eyes in disbelief. Barely a minute into the game and Flamengo were already down 1-0. Everyone on my side fell silent. I could here a collected groan as Flamengo fans were delt a punch to the guts. Yet, they didn't say silent for long. Soon enough they were cheering and singing even more loudly than before. Singing songs with lines like "We are still here, we are still behind you".
Unfortunately Flamengo were playing a bad game that night. Every time one of the players stuffed up there would be cries of "Porra", "Caralho" and "Filha da PUTA!!!" I won't translate those words but all you need to know is they were upset. As half time arrived, Flamengo still down 1-0, the man to my right who was doing most of the swearing I was hearing had his head on his girlfriends shoulder and on the verge of tears. Carla wasn't surprised as she has seen many really big tough men crying loudly at their teams bad performance. He lifts his head in a rage of Portuguese swear words and catches my eye and starts complaining to me.
As not to explain my position of "not really caring who wins" in english, I rolled my eyes and tried to look as upset as he was, shrugging my shoulders as if to say "I know man, I know!"
The second half kicks off and the vibe picks up again. Out come the smoke bombs, flags and drums. But things got worse. Flamengo weren't playing any better and Fluminense scored again. It was nearing the end of the second half, Flamengo down 2-0 and the songs of "We are still here, we are still behind you" turned to verbal abuse at the players. I heard a loud crash behind me that I assume was something being broken in frustration. It was about that time Carla said "We're going, shit is going to go down now" We quickly filed out of the stadium along with other people not wanting to get caught up in the impending "shit". There is a saying in Rio that goes along the lines of "It's good, not just for Flamengo fans but everyone if Flamengo wins as no one will get robbed or beaten up on the way home" Unfortunately a portion of Flamengo fans
are known criminals and drug dealers and have been known to cause trouble if they loose. Large crowds of people hit the streets waving down any taxi that would stop but the taxis couldn't keep up with demand. I could see preference was given to people with children. No one was going to catch the Metro home because that meant going on the Fluminense side of the stadium to catch it. So for us the best option ironically, was to walk. Walking the streets, especially these streets, of Rio of a night is not a good idea if you value your possestions or your life but since there were so many people around heading our way it was safe enough. We walked halfway and caught a taxi from the shopping centre. All in all even though Flamengo lost and I never got to hear the cheer from my side of the crowd, it was still the most electric sporting match I have ever been to.
As Carla had to work during most weekdays I set out exploring some places that a "gringo" like me could safely do on his own. Copacabana took its name from a village on Lake
Titicaca in Bolivia and is a nice area of mainly older locals and tourists. Copacabana Beach is 4.5km of stunning shoreline and, along with Ipanema, one of Rio's most beautiful. Back in the 50's and 60's, Rio was THE place to go for the Hollywood's A-list and Copacabana was its epicentre. During the 70's however, the beach with its surrounds began to fall into decline and the attention shifted to Ipanema. It was given a few face-lifts over the years and today is still a beautiful area but far from Rio's crown jewel. A walk along Copacabana beach (the first time anywhere in the city for this exceptionally white skinned gringo by himself) attracted a few of the locals to treat me like every other white skinned gringo. I had gotten used to walking around with a local that I forgot what its like as an outsider. I got the usual deal of people trying to sell me stuff, being asked for money because I took photos of something I shouldn't have and had some guy spill brown sticky crap on my shoes and offered to clean it off (I'm sure for a "really cheap price"). I worked with a
Brazilian in Brighton who taught me a fair bit of what you would call, the "colourful side" of the Portuguese language. So when some guy hassled me for money in Portuguese, I didn't understand until he swore at me, so I swore back in Portuguese. He didn't like that so I guess that's one new Brazilian friend I wont be making.
Another area I checked out, this time with my local, was Lagoa. Just a short distance north of Ipanema and Leblon, this is also an area in Rio that yields very high prices for property and it's easy to see why. Perhaps one of the most beautiful areas of the city, the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas is a picturesque Lagoon that is ringed by walking and biking trails, restaurants and kiosks. Christo stands high to the north and magnificent lush green mountains surround it. You can paddle in the lagoon with your very own swan paddle boat (not as cheesy as it sounds) or walk the 7.2km of trails around the outside. It's a place for the Rio elite, tourists and anyone who wants to be right in the centre of the Zona sul
(South zone) without the
hustle and bustle of the city's sometimes chaotic streets.
Before an underground tunnel was built making access to the Zona Sul easier, Rio's upper class lived in Santa Teresa. People used to live in this lush forested area overlooking the city and made their way to Centro (the city's buisness district) by Bonde
(Tram). Now there are just two Bondes left in the city, one still running from Centro to Santa Teresa. We waited at the stop for a while as there is only one tram leaving every 30 minutes. The old unofficial rule is that if you hang off the side of the Bonde, you ride for free. It seems they have closed that loop hole but with a tiny admission charge of just R$0.60 (US$0.30) it's not really a problem. We all piled on the Bonde and as it pulled away, everyone cheered like they were happy for the old girl to still be operational. I couldn't resist the idea of hanging off the side so thats what I did. The Bonde clattered its way over a very thin old aquaduct (now a bridge), up the hills and into Santa Teresa. Once we reached our stop we
alighted and had a look around. It's easy to see why the rich used to live there. A quiet area of winding cobblestone streets, grand palaces now fading into time which is all overlooking the city and almost engulfed in forest. Essentially, although it may be right in Rio, it feels a million miles away. I tried to take a picture of a little street but an old lady said something to me. Carla translated it as something like "You should put the camera away, it's not safe".
It's an unfortunate fact that the ever present feeling of danger lurks around every corner in Rio. Carla has lived her whole life here and is just used to the dangers so doesn't think twice about them. She got used to things like not walking on the streets at night or not stopping at red lights of a night, not taking many valubles out and avoiding certain areas all together. Things changed when I showed up and she kept telling me how I shouldn't go here, shouldn't do this, shouldn't wear that or shouldn't speak english too loud in some situations. It took me a while to get used to as
I've never been to a place with so many "rules". After that woman said that to us, Carla was in a bit of a bad mood because she realised what her city is like. She wanted so much for me to love Rio that it made her annoyed that I couldn't just wander around and act like a tourist if I wanted. Ordinarily it may attract nothing more than either a few curious stares or a small chuckle but here it can attract some things much worse. It's made photography a bit harder because unless I'm right in a big tourist area with lots of people about, I can't just wander around with my camera out. Yet sometimes I get the feeling its exaggerated a little and that in some places its fine for me to wander around and take a few photos. After all the time I've spent here, I haven't felt in trouble or even near to being in trouble, so are all the tourists getting worried for nothing?? I don't think so but all the advice I've received, I've adhered to so I guess it's helped.
The Fla-Flu match was definitely a highlight of the trip
so far so I exploited the opportunity to get amongst the action at Maracanã once again. The CONMEBOL (South American Football Confederation) are starting their qualifying rounds for the next World Cup in 2010. Brazil were to play Equador at Maracanã which was almost an historical match because Brazil had not played at Maracanã for 7 years. This was definintely a MUST SEE match. We arrived by taxi, walked the streets towards Maracanã and straight away I could see the atmosphere was much different than the Fla-Flu match. There were families clad in thier Brazil paraphernalia and waving their Brazilian flags. All I could see was a sea of bright yellow jerseys flooding their way towards Maracanã. Unlike Fla-Flu, this was not a divided crowd. We passed through the gates and walked the ramp up to the line of Polícia. There was a guy handing out plastic Brazilian flags so Carla and I grabbed one. I thought "Wow this really is different to the Fla-Flu". Carla said "Yer the reason they are doing this is because the FIFA selectors are here and Brazil is trying to make a good impression because they have applied to hold the World Cup in
2014". That was also the reason why, to my horror, they were not selling beer at the match, because they didn't want lout behaviour. That prompted quite a few loud chants from the crowd of "CER-VE-JA!! CER-VE-JA!!!".
We all had seats to sit on which was a luxury we didn't have at Fla-Flu and all I could see was this enormous stadium filled with the Brazilian yellow. Since this was practically a once in a decade event, the house was pretty much packed out as nearly 90 000 people crammed into football's holy grail to witness (hopefully) Brasil thrash Equador. There were still one or two Flamengo and Fluminense jerseys around aswell as the other Rio teams of Botafogo and Vasco. I could see a few Flamengo flags flying around and every now and then, the Flamengo fans would burst out into their teams songs to much booing and hissing from other club fans. However once the announcer started to read out the names of the Brazilian players, attention was focused on Brazil. The cheers for the players varied greatly. Some got a boo for playing badly recently or playing for "the wrong team". Some players got a half
hearted clap. Some got a good cheer. However this is Brazil, the country that has won more world cups than any other and has produced many of the games greats so some players got a huge ovation. Once he read superstar names like Ronaldinho, Kaká, Robinho and Juan the crowd went nuts. One of the biggest cheers was for Kaká, not just because he is good but because he is the pretty boy of the team and all the girls go crazy when his name is mentioned.
All the players line up as the national anthems are sung. Once the whistle is blown and the game kicks off, I noticed something else. Although there was more people here than the Fla-Flu and practically EVERYONE was going for the one team, the crowd seemed a bit quieter. Was it because there was more families? or no beer being sold?. The truth is because Brazil don't play much at Maracanã, there are no organised songs or chants. However when Brazil got close to scoring a goal, the stadium started to rumble from the anticipation of the crowd. I missed out hearing a proper Maracanã cheer at the Fla-Flu match so was
desperate to experience one in this match. It's football's heavy-weight champs Brazil against relative feather-weights Equador, I mean c'mon, it's gotta happen doesn't it?? For nearly 20 minutes we hold our breath as Brazil get close but not close enough to the Equadorian goal. The problem is that because Brazil are just so good, when they are matched up against an ordinary team like Equador, they only play just good enough to win and nowhere as good as Brazil can. Plus most of the players play for huge european teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid or Barcelona and get paid a sickening amount of money so save themselves for their clubs. Yet at the 19th minute, it finally happens, Vágner Love puts a goal in. "GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOL" splashes across the screen and the roar from the crows is overwhelming. Everyone jumps around, screams and hugs and kisses random strangers. This was the stuff people came to see. However for the rest of the first half, Brazil remain 1-0 and played just well enough to stop Equador putting in an equaliser. It showed just how powerful Brazil are, as they potted around the field playing at about 40%, Equador were playing their
hearts out, trying all their moves and tactics but nothing was working, Brazil were just too strong.
The second half began and it was better because the Equadorian goal was down near our side of the stadium. Brazil continued to buggerise around with almost god-like Ronaldinho (who had been playing crap recently so had a lot to prove) flicking the ball around and trying all sorts of fancy stuff that had no real point. Ronaldinho gets paid more per year than 1000's of us put together will ever see in our life times and maybe its this fact that makes him the cocky bastard he is and the reason everyone puts up with his crap. There is no doubt he is possibly the greatest player on earth at the moment, but that night he was just there to lend his name to line up. That is until the 72nd minute when he cleverly deflects a long range effort from Kaká and put the score line at 2-0. The crowd goes crazy again. After this the flood gates were open and Brazil were just simply unstoppable. It was the kind of football that everyone came to see. You could tell
that the big-headed players realised they were playing with a team, not by themselves and they all turned it on playing some of the most spectacular football you'll ever see. This point was proven when Kaká scored an amazing goal dodging several players and putting the scoreline to 3-0. Two more goals followed by Robinho and Kaká again with each goal evicting a louder and louder cheer from the packed house. The game finnished at a 5-0 thrashing and quite a spectacle.
As we crammed out of the stadium onto the streets like sheep, I felt relaxed. That was once big thing about this match over the Fla-Flu, as the atmosphere may not have been as intense, it was more like a carnival and was less serious so a lot more comfortable to enter and leave the stadium which is usually the time when it gets a little tense.
So that's it for now. We're heading north for a weekend so next blog about that and probably another about my remaining time in Rio.
Cheers for reading and don't be shy in sending through a few comments. Until next time, PEACE!! CAMO!!
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