Reconciling with Rio

The Oscar Niemeyer-designed Museum of Contemporary Art, with Sugar Loaf in the distance.

Three years ago, shortly after dusk on a crisp July evening, I left the gym and walked with a friend down a cavernous back-street in Copacabana, the gritty, dense, intense, world-famous beachfront neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro.  At that time, my Portuguese skills were nonexistent, and I conversed with my friend in an uneasy Portuñol that was more functional Spanish with a passable Brazilian accent. Being the intrepid, street-wise flâneur that I am, I dressed in nondescript shorts, a white t-shirt, basic black sneakers, and took along a Discman: a) to have some music to listen to in the gym, and b) specifically to ward off anyone interested in making even the least bit of profit by robbing me…who the hell would want a Discman in the 21st century?

Well, some ten-year-old kid shows up asking me for who the hell knows what and I told him, in Spanish, that I didn’t really have anything to give him (I didn’t). He then grabbed my arm. I flipped: “no me toques, hijueputa” I said and jerked my hand back. Then he started shouting in Portuguese, I shouted back in Spanish, and then he hit me in the foot with a rock. I swear, if I had had on a belt, that woulda been his ass, but my friend dragged me away and the kid ran off. It wasn’t until I got back to the apartment that I thought about what would have happened had the kid pulled a gun: you could have cast me in Airplane!.

Never, in all my years of travel, had I been accosted in the street by anybody. I mean, I’m a 6’2, 210-pound black man…I’m the one who makes people nervous.  In fact, it was the lack of control that was most unsettling aspect of what happened.  And it didn’t matter that I understood all the socio-economic history behind why this kid was running the streets, probably high on glue, looking for hand-outs.  In that moment, I was just a “rich” foreigner, nothing more.  I’ve not felt 100% secure in Rio ever since.

I’ve been back to the city several times; twice, I’ve rung in the New Year on Copacabana.  And there are myriad things to like about the place: the attractiveness of the people, the stunning landscape, beaches with actual waves, the history and the music.  Still, I’ve always seen Rio as Miami/LA to São Paulo’s New York: plastically attractive, with no real depth; a city full of shameless social-climbers, hooligans, and a large percentage of strivers you never meet in person because they’re working themselves to the bone while the first two groups crowd the beaches (no shade on Miami or LA, y’all).  The coolest Cariocas I’ve ever met have been ones living outside of Rio, and I’m hard-pressed to think of any person I know there who I can count as a true friend (the friend who was with me when Lil Zé tried to get at me actually spends most of the year in his hometown of Porto Alegre).

Downtown Rio de Janeiro

But the last couple of times I’ve visited the city, I’ve ventured out of chic and/or titillating Zona Sul into regions I hadn’t charted before: Downtown, full of neo-classical architecture from Brazil’s Belle Epoque that’s slowly-and-surely being restored; the hilly boho enclave of Santa Teresa, with its feijoada dives and political graffiti; futuristic Niteroi, the burgeoning suburb across the bay full of Niemeyer architecture and the vibe of Rio before the crack epidemic.  Hanging over the “Marvelous City” is an atmosphere of tense anticipation, a mixture of hope and anxiety about hosting the 2016 Olympics in a city notoriously besieged by bad management and corruption, class and racial conflict (don’t let ‘em tell you differently), and lawlessness (shooting down a police helicopter? Damn!).  There’s also the promise of an Olympic-sized renaissance, a reversal of the former capital’s fifty-year decline since losing that title to Brasília and a return to the world stage of one of Earth’s great urban playgrounds, anchored by a remarkable history as the hemisphere’s only imperial capital and an indefatigable culture of music and dance centuries in the making.

In spite of our shaky past and my status as a bona fide gringo paulista, I’m excited about witnessing Rio’s resurgence.  I hope, soon, that we’ll be completely reconciled and I can name her as one of my favorite cities; after all, Paris and I didn’t exactly get along at first, either.

Chillin' at the feet of Jesus, overlooking Ipanema.

5 thoughts on “Reconciling with Rio

  1. I love your travel insights. I just left Rio & Savadore. I just had a great time, meeting the peeps, using my Portuguese, and just learning the culture. So much to do, never enough time. I always feel good their, but guilty for taking time off from work. But I have learned a great deal from reading your blog and listening to the podcasts. So informative, Boa Sorte on the next move, If anyone can pull this off with panace, you can!!

  2. Mi dios! You have me nervous now! If you were shitting yourself… far out!
    When I first went to Rio around 15 years ago – spent a month there – I loved it and wasn’t scared at all. Even went into a shanty town for a week working on a participatory video-making project, teaching poor women how to make videos about their lives. But Sao Paolo freaked me out. The first night I was there, I was walking with a local Japanese-Brazilian I’d just met and we saw a guy get shot in the back just a few metres in front of us. It was the most frightening thing I’ve seen in my life. Spent a few days there only, but desperately wanted to leave and didn’t want to return when I had to at the end of the year (was in Latin America for a year for Masters research), but Rio, well, I was completely comfortable there, walking the streets on my own late at night… in Copacabana too! So excited – but also a tad nervous – to be going back! Looking forward to meeting you in person next week!

    • @Lara: I think it’s certainly a question of experience; I’ve had amazing interactions in Caracas while other people I know have been held up at gunpoint. My problem isn’t in the favelas at all, in which the most dangerous situation might be getting caught in the crossfire between a gang and the police. It’s in Copacabana where I feel uneasiest, because it’s a touristy place that attracts trouble-makers. If you love the place enough, though, I’m sure you’ll be fine!

  3. I’m going from post to post on your blog and enjoying the way you write. I started this one thinking that you’d love Rio but was kind of glad you felt the same way about it we did. It was the one place I’ve ever been too as a white man that I felt shit upon, they didn’t like my face one damn but. My wife, who’s coloured, found it amusing. But besides the unfriendliness, we felt the same as you – never felt secure there, always looking over our shoulders. Not planning on ever going back to Brazil.
    Frank (bbqboy)
    Our Rio story: http://bbqboy.net/rio-de-janeiro-brazil/

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