Copacabana: Throngs of thongs, most of them — fortunately — worn by women.


One of the attractions of exploring South America is immediate. Flying north to south minimizes the dreaded time zone effect, overnight flights allow some sleep, flying into summer in the southern hemisphere from rain soaked Vancouver after a long cold wet winter all contribute to a joyful arrival in Rio. I’m fresh, perky and ready to explore Brazil; first stop: Rio de Janeiro.

Our hotel fronts on the famous Copacabana beach, a four-kilometre stretch of sand in the heart of Rio. We walk the promenade, eat lunch at a pleasant outdoor cafe, and even manage a little shopping. We share a late afternoon Brazilian espresso on our rooftop patio and finish the day with a delightful seafood dinner at a small family restaurant a pleasant evening stroll from the hotel. Not bad given I didn’t land in Rio until noon.

With only a short time in Rio, we have arranged a personal guide, Neyla, to give us an escorted all day tour.  First stop, Christ the Redeemer, the iconic statue that has been blessing the city for the past 80 years. It is awe inspiring.  Blessing  the top of a steep 2000 foot climb by tram or minibus, the highest point of land in the middle of a large urban park, the statue has become for Rio what the Eiffel Tower is for Paris. It is synonymous with, and emblematic of, the city and deeply embedded part of the DNA of Cariocas, as residents of Rio are known. And we are blessed with a minor miracle, we spot a rarity: a toucan in the forest of the park on our way to see the statue.

nugrafThe concrete statue itself is simple, elegant and spiritual without being overtly Catholic. The final choice, its ultimate design, was guided by public discussion. It sits high above Rio’s many barrios, visible to all, well lit, mesmerizing, a constant reminder of Rio’s deep Catholic tradition, yet it is a landmark that transcends religious iconography. At 30 metres high, it is the second largest statue of Jesus in the world (behind the 36-metre Christ the King in Swiebodzin, Poland).

The views from the spot validate Rio’s ocean side provenance; beaches, breezes, islands that dot the landscape. The steep slopes and mountainous topography determine the city plan such as it is; everyone lives in communities and districts delineated by the terrain. Cariocas connect home with workplace by carving roads through or around challenging terrain, there is no straight line from point A to point B.

Somewhat similar to Vancouver, Rio is mountains and forests, lakes, lagoons, beaches and ocean, all meeting in a beautiful jumble.  It is a beautiful city, not quite Vancouver but close.

The beaches are especially beautiful, long stretches of wide hospitable sand, a huge playpen for Cariocas of all ages and dispositions; unfortunately, for every svelte beauty in a bikini there’s the visual assault of a portly man in a too-small Speedo. The beaches are full; they take their sun worship and beach frolicking seriously here.

Rio’s beaches put those in France’s Mediterranean to shame.

In short order, we visit a farmer’s market and the review stands for the annual Carnival parade celebrating life, before Lent throws its dour shadow over the country. We visit a modern, innovative inspirational church with a courageous design, something between an Aztec temple and a teepee — open and soaring, empty and airy. In juxtaposition, our next stop is a long brazenly colourful outdoor hillside stairway covered with thousands of tiles, created by an eccentric artist, reminiscent of Gaudi and his breathtaking Barcelona whimsy.


The favela

Finally, we visit Rio’s largest favela, housing 250,000 people. They are illegal communities, built on hillsides and otherwise uninhabitable spots all over the city by squatters. With hundreds of thousands of permanent residents, they work but are portrayed as lawless havens for miscreants of all sorts. The law and the police avoid entering the favelas further reinforcing their image as bad places. Drug dealers use them as safe havens. Now, with the 2014 World Cup imminent, governments have been seeking to “pacify” them.

We go see. Uniformed police with semi-automatics observe but stay on the neutral outer edge of our favela. We lunch a few blocks into the favela, try not to gawk and come away unimpressed and only marginally better informed. We worry about taking pictures, Neyla laughs, “Don’t worry, they like to pose; it happens so often.” So much for visiting the wild side.

We are struggling with Portuguese, I know one word, obrigado (thank you). Most places can help us a bit but there is less English that expected. Menus with an English translation can usually be found in a pinch. I have a sense that Brazil has both benefited and suffered from being a Portuguese speaking country in a continent where everyone else speaks Spanish. It isolates Brazil and yet seems to encourage a sense of unity and community.

There was a recent story in the Canadian media that Brazilian prostitutes were being taught English in anticipation of the World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Apparently the program is going well.

On the other hand, two major stadiums in Rio are closed; upgrades and repairs for the World Cup are not going well. Indicative of Brazilian priorities and a certain laissez-faire attitude, who knows? Free spirits, carnival, futball, exuberance and a remarkably uninhibited sensuality are sure to shock most visitors in 2014. It will be a World Cup like no other.

We’ve walked most of the Copacabana and Ipanema beach fronts several times. On Saturday we take time out to go to our first Brazilian football match.  Vasco da Gama wins 3-1 before a small crowd. It is an early-round playoff game without much suspense. It is delightful. Exceptional football skills, a fun game, a happy, noisy crowd on a warm afternoon. Such events prove yet again that anywhere we visit, we see a normal world full of people who live their daily lives. They work, they play, they go to afternoon football matches with their children and their girlfriends; they cheer the local team and they go home for dinner on a Saturday, happy and content.

I have become a fan of iPhones. Using one, we found a local seafood restaurant, had a tasty meal at a very reasonable price at a restaurant we never would have stumbled upon. We have become loyal customers, of the restaurant and the iPhone. We walk to our neighborhood restaurant into the evening and are enjoying the sights, the sounds, the weather; watching Cariocas from a sidewalk cafe is a pastime well worth cultivating. The pace of life and the people spend time outside well into the evenings and Rio could not be more beautiful; the people are friendly and warm and open, the beaches and designated paths are always full of activity.

As a test, we always discuss the issue in personal terms; could we live here? The answer is yes; without too much hesitation, yes.