City of God

The Christmas break in Rio was a last minute decision. A friend called to say that she might be moving to Sao Paolo in the new year – so if we wanted the carioca tour, I should make the most of the fact that she was still living in Laranjeiras. Before I had really thought things through, I had booked a flight on the much-troubled Varig. On the 20th December, I landed in Rio, via Frankfurt and Sao Paolo, found that my baggage had gone missing, shrugged my shoulders and blinked at the explosion of noise and colour that was on the other side of the revolving doors in Tom Jobim Airport.

Over a week later, writing this piece on my friend’s PC, I remember something I once heard in an interview with the late Bruno Lauzi , an Italian cantautore, who was asked why his songs were so sad. “That’s easy,” he chuckled. “When I’m happy, I go out.” One of the upsides of a vacation is being forced to stay away from our connected world and enjoy the simpler things in life. A feast of friends, a book, the smell of fresh seafood, a bustling market.

There is much to enjoy here. One cable car ride to Corovado and you feast your eyes on the tapestry of the great city beneath you, with the majestic statue of Christ minding your back. It’s really one of those humbling experiences in your life. I won’t do a travelogue, because this city’s attractions are very well documented. Let’s just say that the cachaça is as good as it is made out to be (where else do you find a place that serves 300 versions of the same drink); a ride on a cable car in the Santa Teresa district makes you feel you are eight years old as you rattle down a hill, lined by pretty houses with manicured gardens; Caetano Veloso is the closest to a music god that you will find in this part of the hemisphere; coconut water does quench the thirst under the midday sun; Copacabana and Ipanema resonate with decadence but the best beaches are in Prainha and further away, in Geriba in Buzios and in Parati; restaurants are reasonable, and you can find anything from fine cuisine to beach vendors selling empadinha de palmito; the best entertainment is people watching – from the skaters and the beach bums in their lycra to the busy people in the markets and down town scraping to make an honest living.

Except, this is Rio. Where it’s not just the good, but also the bad, that you can find outdoors. My friend drives a car with blinded windows, another has a bullet-proof Passat. These are not the creme de la creme – these are hard-working professionals, many of them in marketing and ICT, some running start-ups. All of them have been mugged or held up. Yesterday I went to watch a movie and caught the tail end of the type of violence that people in Rio have to live with. On Saturday, I saw a guy get lynched, at Ipanema, in front of a police patrol car. It transpired later that the guy being beaten up had stolen a mobile from a girl buying a drink at a beach kiosk. The entire staff of the kiosk gave chase, wielding iron pipes.

You can blame the violence on the favelas’ proximity to the city’s wealthiest districts. Upper-class neighborhoods such as Ipanema and Copacabana squeezed in between the beach and the hills, the latter of which are covered with poor neighbourhoods. The haves rubbing shoulders with the have-nots. Whatever it is, honest people here are giving up on the police and plan car journeys meticulously – nobody comes to a complete stop at the red lights; corruption is rife in local government; and big business continues to migrate to Sao Paolo, that has its own sets of problems with organised crime.

It’s scary thinking of this city being allowed to descend into a state of vigilante forces, and where the only business that is alive is tourism. Nobody wants to feel like an outsider when travelling. And the conversations with my friends are still on projects they want to launch, the economy, the hope that Lula’s new term and the new Governor of Rio will finally get real about crime, Giuliani style. “This city can tip either way,” says my friend. “We will either get our act together – or this city will be lost, for at least ten years.”

As a coda. We are now all photographers, bloggers, children of the digital age obsessed with recording and capturing the moment on whatever digital medium we can get our hand on. In Rio, I want to record some precious moments, to share with my son, at some future moment in time. I can confirm how great Blip TV is compared to You Tube. Quick upload, no loss of synchronisation between voice and image. It’s still in beta and I could not access the site for the best part of this afternoon – but it really is terrific. Perhaps the down time proves that the moment something good comes round, it doesn’t take too long for mass interest to ignite.

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