April 15, 2009

Rockin' it in Rio

'OK, let's go get stabbed,' said Craig as we pulled out of the bus terminal at Puerto Iguazu, Argentina. With our arrival in Rio de Janeiro just 22 hours away, Craig's worrying/whinging about our safety in Rio had gone into overdrive.

For months leading up to our South American trip, Craig had been banging on about how we were going to get stabbed/mugged/shot in the notorious Brazilian city, and for months I had been trying to convince him that I was sure that, since we would be taking every safety precaution possible, we would be fine. But for every reassurance I offered, there was Lonely Planet telling us to go there with the expectation that we would get mugged, news reports of hostels being ransacked during Carnaval and friends telling him via Facebook that he was going to get kidnapped (yes, Nathan Ball, I'm talking about you).

Truth be told, our reason for visiting Rio was that of pure obligation – how could we come all the way to South America and not visit the city that you go to when your baby smiles at you, where the girl from Ipanema goes walking and where music and passion were always the fashion (at the Copa... Copacabana)?

But then, by miracle, Craig fell in love with Rio, and it soon soared to number one on our list of favourite South American destinations.

It's tough to pinpoint exactly what is so great about Rio, or why we had such a blast there, Craig describes it as having a certain 'edge' about it, and by the end of our stay he proclaimed that the element of danger added that extra something to the city. Go figure.

One huge reason we loved Rio so much was our hostel, Walk on the Beach. The bathrooms were spacious and clean, the breakfast – consisting of bread rolls, ham, cheese, jam, coffee, juice and fruit – was the best we've encountered to date, the kitchen was well-equipped and the staff were bend-over-backwards helpful – unlike most other places we've stayed, how dare we interrupt their eight-hour MSN Messenger session to ask where the supermarket is! Staying in a 12-bed dorm didn't bother us one iota, which is really saying something!

Then, of course, there was the beach. Swimming at Copacabana, while the Brazilians strut their stuff and flaunt their toned bodies on the beach-volleyball courts is really something. Copacabana becomes something of a sports field on the weekends, with bats, balls, footballs and volleyballs flying left, right and centre.

But it's not all bikinis and voluptuous bottoms, and while it's easy to forget while strolling along Ipanema beach, you only have to look up to the hills to be reminded Rio's dangerous side. There are over 700 favelas (slums) scattered throughout the city, places where streets have no names, there are no building codes and crime is the name of the game. To get a feel for the less-glamorous side of Rio, we did a tour of one of the city's most famous favelas, Rocinha, which makes over $US4 million in drugs and weapon sales per month. Motorbikes whizzed us up to the top, and we made our way down through the makeshift suburb. The police were in the favela during our visit, machine guns pointed. Firecrackers were being let off left, right and centre – residents warning each other that the cops were on their turf. At one point we walked past a gun-wielding, bullet-proof-vest wearing drug dealer, and then took two steps and tasted some of the most delicious caramel and chocolate-filled donuts in the local bakery. The quality of life for these people is extremely low and depressing, and the whole experience was definitely an eye opener.

Aside from gawking at the city's poor, we also visited the iconic Christ the Redeemer. It wasn't the clearest of days when we went, but sometimes it's so foggy you can't even see the statue when you are standing at the base of it, so we counted ourselves lucky. We also visited the tiled steps in Lapa (made famous by Snoop Dogg's Beautiful video), made by an eccentric old Chilean man (who we got to meet), which feature tiles from all over the world.

On the food front, it was sucos (fresh fruit juices) and black beans galore. There was a 43-year-old Australian staying at our hostel who had been there a few weeks, we dubbed him 'The Godfather', 'cause if you ever had any questions on where to go or what to do, he's been there, done it and bought the T-shirt. One afternoon he took Craig and I to a place where you could get a massive plate of rice, black beans and meat (Craig and I went for beef schnitzel) for just $5.50 Reais ($AU3.46).

Rio is one of those places people just seem to get stuck in, there was a group of English people (two guys, one girl), who would wake up every morning with the intention of going to the bus terminal and thought 'stuff it, let's just stay one more day', it took them over a week to leave. We easily could have spent a few weeks in Rio, spending lazy days sipping sucos on the beach, but time and budget (Brazil is the most expensive South American country we will visit) simply weren't on our side.

As we drove out of Rio, I had just one thing to say to Craig – a big, fat 'I told you so!'.