Thursday, April 27, 2017

One Rainy Day in Rio

Ten years ago, a list of the new Seven World Wonders was announced. The process was gimmicky as hell- 7 year voting period, winners announced on 7/7/07- and skewed towards countries with large populations and readily available internet access. (Sorry mud mosques of Mali, better luck next time!) but considering only one of the original world wonders remained standing, we were due for an update. The new list includes the Great Wall of China, Petra, Machu Pichu, the Colosseum, Chichen Itza, the Taj Mahal and Christ the Redeemer. The Pyramids of Giza- the lone holdout from the original version got an honorary status but are not always mentioned because announcing the Eight World Wonders would have totally thrown off their marketing scheme. I have been to six of these babies (7 if you count the pyramids).

Last Saturday, I had the chance to cross the last one off my list. I got into Rio in the middle of the night and had most of the afternoon before having to board my return flight. All I had to do was forego sleep, hire a driver and get to the big ass Jesus and I'd be 7 for 7. The first two parts were easy. The eight hour flight home would provide all the sleep I needed. And as for getting around, I considered Uber'ing throughout the city but with a group of six, it was going to be tricky logistically so we hired two taxis for the day. Our driver, the wonderful Jerusa Silva, quickly drew up an an itinerary for us.
Instead of heading straight to the most visited attraction in all of Rio, she suggested we wait for the day to improve. At this point, it was 7am, drizzling and so cloudy that our view from Mt Corcovado was bound to be crap on a stick.

Under our new plan, we drove along Ipanema and Copacabana beaches and wondered aloud why there were so many joggers, pedestrians and assorted others out at this hour of the day. Don't these people Samba until the wee hours? Didn't the fact that the day sucked so bad provide them with enough of an excuse to skip their morning run?

While we waited on the day to improve, we made our way to Guanabara Bay, where we boarded a cable car up to Sugarloaf. Jerusa explained that this peak sits at a lower elevation, so we should still be able to get a decent view.

The first plateau you reach is Morro de Urca. Looking around, I was stunned. I had no idea Rio was so gorgeous. In the past, I had always imagined Rio as this crime-ridden hellscape that happens to throw a great Carnaval.  In my mind's eye, it was akin to Nairobi but with everyone wearing thongs and soccer jerseys. And while all of this might be true, what lay before me was one of the most dramatically beautiful landscapes I'd ever seen.

The jutting peaks, placid water and bustling city all worked in concert to create a perfectly balanced and unique landscape. I was smitten.

Maybe it was just my mood, but it seemed to me that the day was even improving.  Off in the distance, we could already see the 7th world wonder.

From Morro de Urca, we boarded a second cable car to go up to Sugarloaf itself, where more spectacular views awaited. We could have stayed up there all day. I mean, we literally could have, they have a restaurant, bar and souvenir store up there. What more do you need?  And there were signs asking people not to feed the monkeys, meaning that given enough time, there was a chance we could even see some monkeys!

But our time was limited and we were on a mission. We descended and continued with our plan.

If you look closely you can see the cable car running from one peak to another.
Back on sea level, Jerusa was waiting to show us the actual city we'd been admiring from above. My preconceived notions continued to be challenged. We could see the favelas, or "slums", in the background and I understand that this type of income inequality is bound to resort in economic crime. I know that it exists but I have to honestly say, from my very very limited perspective, sitting in the front seat of a taxi as we traversed the more touristy areas, Rio really did not seem all that menacing. The streets were clean, the buildings well-maintained and there were way fewer pan handlers than I routinely encounter around my own home. The official statistics may belie my first impressions but I'm thinking Rio might be getting a bad rap on this crime thing.

A Favela in the distance

The stadium used for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Rio Olympics.

While the vision of "Rio as a super duper dangerous place" was taking a hit so was the version that paints it as a land of buff, tanned people frolicking in the sun 24/7. As the day went on, the weather only got worse. So far, there was no sun and there was no Jesus.

As we drove through the artsy Lapa neighborhood, the rain began to fall.

There is a famed staircase that connects this neighborhood with Sta Teresa above it. The project began with an artist, Jorge Selaron, wanting to decorate the couple of steps in front of his home and grew into massive passion project. People from around the world contributed, either through purchasing his artwork or by donating tiles from their hometowns.

In all, there are 215 steps covered in over 2000 tiles. Even on this increasingly rainy day, the steps were drawing quite a crowd. So many in fact that we were unable to sit down and recreate the Snoop Dogg video, as I had hoped. 

As we drove past all the murals, I mentioned to Jerusa that two of my favorite street artists, Kobra and Os Gemeos, are Brazilian.  That inspired our next stop. 

We parked by the Museum of Tomorrow and proceeded to walk in what was now a downpour along a pedestrian street.

Eventually we reached the Guiness Book record holder for world's largest mural, done by none other than Kobra himself. Had I not already been falling in love with Rio, this would have been the clincher!  The mural was painted for the Olympic Games, required 180 buckets of paint, 2,800 cans of spray paint and seven hydraulic lift elevators and represented people from around the world.

Sadly, we were quickly running out of time. After a brief stop to dry off and grab lunch, we had to concede that things were not looking good. The day showed no signs of improvement so Jerusa suggested we stop at a lookout point that lays below Mt Corcovado. If we could not see the monument from there, there would be no point in proceeding further.

See the big ass Jesus? No, neither did we.
We went to a spot where people usually take perspective pics showing Jesus in the palm of their hands. Our results were a bit less effective...

We had done all we could but we had to admit that our attempts at visiting World Wonder #7 were a bust. Or as a friend put it "What did you expect as an atheist going off looking for Jesus?" But you know what Jesusito, I'm totally ok with it. I saw the monument from Sugarloaf, so as far as I am concerned, it counts. It is crossed off the list. And you know what else, regardless of what the voters may have decided, I honestly think the statue is one of the least interesting things Rio has to offer.  With its vibrant art scene and stunning landscape, the real wonder here is the city itself.  

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