Hang gliding in Rio

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Amazing.

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Tall and tan and young and lovely….

I first heard the song, “The Girl from Ipanema,” when I was twelve years old. My uncle, who’s a jazz aficionado, lended me the Stan Getz CD. From then on, I became hooked on bossa nova and samba. Even now, when I read for class, I still tune in to the Stan Getz or Astrud Gilberto channel on Pandora. I’d never thought in all these years, that I would be listening to the song while walking along Ipanema Beach.

I mentioned in my last post that I was curious to discover more of Rio. While I’ve barely scratched the surface, I think I’ve found a piece that I’m happy with. Every morning before class, I’ll take a 1-2 hour stroll along Copacabana and Ipanema Beach. It takes 15-20 minutes from my hotel to get to Ipanema, but once I enter the beach, the view is amazingly worthwhile.

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I think when traveling, I think it’s necessary to find a routine or find something about the country that I can personally claim. And for me, taking daily walks along Ipanema Beach, while listening to bossa nova and samba, is my favorite thing to do here. It’s my time to meditate, it’s my time to get away, and not worry. No matter what happens, I’ll always look back on my time in Brazil and remember taking walks and seeing the dramatic cliffs, the splashing waves, sandy coastline, and bright blue skies. That for me is my Brazil.

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Rio!

Polarizing – that’s the word that sums up my first impression of Brazil thus far, particularly Rio de Janeiro. When I told my family and friends that I was visiting Rio, everyone was telling me how gorgeous the locals were. The hype on Rio is astonishing. Shoo – even I bought into the hype. I spent nearly a month before my trip exercising and dieting like a mad woman so I wouldn’t look like mush next to these so-called stunning cariocas. When you click on Google Images of Rio, all you get is pictures of Christ the Redeemer, along with the astonishing landscape of lush forests, dramatic cliff top mountains, and beaches. To a certain degree, seeing the statute and being on top of Corcovado fulfills the hype. The view from the mountain offers fantastic views of Rio.

What I didn’t expect though was the huge divide between the rich and poor. The middle class does not exist here. Glamorous women in bikinis will walk alongside the beach and pass a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk. Yet, the physical distance between the rich and poor is so close. In fact, it’s to the point where the slums are only four blocks from my hotel. Thus, it’s not permissible for me to walk far because I’ll likely get mugged or robbed.

That’s another thing I didn’t expect about Rio. The crime is really bad. Granted, with the Summer Olympics set to arrive in 2016, the city of Rio has been hard at work to clean up the crime. At Copacabana Beach, I saw police officers frequently stroll along the side walk. In the favelas, I am told the army and national security forces have stepped in and are building police stations to ferret out the violence.

Still, it’s disheartening that I can only sparingly whip out my camera to take pictures. It’s also sad I can’t thoroughly walk long distances and explore neighborhoods without worrying about entering the slums. I’m also discouraged that I can’t enter the favelas without taking an official tour due to safety concerns.

I’m from Atlanta and many of my classmates are from New Orleans, so exercising due diligence is a way of life. Maybe living in Portland close to two years has affected my psyche, but it’s disappointing to know that I can’t step out and explore local neighborhoods, get lost, and freely take pictures. That’s my hallmark of being a care free traveler. The fact that I have to be so constricted in my movements and my photo taking shots has somewhat negatively colored my impression of Rio, and in extension, Brazil.

Yet, despite the high rate of crime and violence, I have been charmed by the locals. I don’t speak a word of Portuguese beyond abrigado (“thank you”) and ola (“hello”), but the cariocas have been patient and warm. Everyone will freely smile back at you when you smile at them.

That was expressed to me last night when I was in Lapa. I had the time of my life. Lapa is an old colonial district in northern Rio, and is known for their vibrant nightlife and violent crime. Indeed, my professor urged me to only go in a large group and walk no more than a 3-4 blocks radius within Lapa. Despite the limitation, because I was with some protective guys, I was able to walk more freely. The bars and clubs were housed in old run-down colonial buildings. Crowds were pouring out into the streets. Late night food stands were open until the wee hours of the morning serving mixed cocktail drinks and hotdogs. And this was a regular Saturday night! I can only imagine what the scene is like when Carnival is here.

After walking several blocks, we entered a club called Bazooka. Despite the cheesy sounding name, the atmosphere was fantastically vibrant. Afro-Brazilian musicians were lined up dressed in white pants, striped t-shirts, and Panama-style hats. They were beating drums, strumming guitars, and singing in glorious unison. The mix of Afro-Latin melodies and beats was so wondrous, I couldn’t help but start to sway my hips. After having some sips of caprinhia, I went downstairs and joined the locals, and was tapping my feet and dancing to samba trying my best to imitate the locals. I would exchange smiles with the musicians giving them my nod in approval, and they would smile back. My new friends also joined in and were joyously dancing to the music. It was at that moment that I felt like I entered a little pocket of Brazilian society and felt uplifted by the people. I was feeling a bit down in the dumps before I came to Brazil, so having a band of strangers lift my spirits made me feel so incredibly happy. It also made me see how travel can do so much to alleviate whatever insecurities and anxieties I have in life. It’s made me see how being in a foreign land and connecting to strangers, whether it’s through music and dance, can make you feel alive.  Thus, despite the poverty, the wide socioeconomic divide, and the prevalent violence, Brazilians have created a culture infused with vitality through its music, culture, and positive, upbeat attitude. The jury is still out on Brazil and I’ve only been here a couple of days, but whatever misgivings I have about the place, I’m looking forward to see more of what it has to offer.