A trip through Rio, a city with pronounced contrasts and faces
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RIO DE JANEIRO — The samba music pulsed through Trapiche Gamboa and three women sang to the seductive beat. Almost everyone inside the cavernous nightspot danced, including the waitresses who kept the caipirinhas flowing. It was hard to resist. Both the dancing and the caipirinhas.
The scene in the Old Port section of the city provided a welcome break from the Olympic hype that now dominates much of the stunning Rio landscape where mountains rise from the sea.
Above all, Rio is a city of contrasts. Or, as one Tunisian cameraman said when we passed a favela en route to Maracana Stadium for the Opening Ceremony of the XXXI Olympiad, “Here are two faces.” The impoverished favelas snake alongside wealthy gated communities. The breathtaking mountains rise above polluted ocean waters. National pride overflows (Brazilian flags and soccer jerseys are commonplace) in a country devastated by political corruption and economic free fall.
With the Olympic Games underway, and the influx of thousands of visitors, athletes, and journalists, Rio is a city with even more pronounced contrasts and more faces. Time spent in Copacabana, Ipanema, Barra da Tijuca, and downtown showed that over and over again. And some lifelong Rio residents are of two minds about all that is going on.
“My point of view is that we have a lot of problems and we need to solve priority problems,” said Robert Mendonca, a doctor at a hospital not far from Maracana Stadium. “We have social problems — no education for the poor, no health care, no security for the poor. They only have what’s necessary to survive. But it happened that Rio was chosen. And, so far, we are doing well, very, very well. It is beyond my expectations.”
On the drive from upscale Barra, site of the Olympic Park and its nine athletic venues, to Copacabana, my taxi driver gestured toward Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil. It sprawled along both sides of the highway, climbing steeply on the left. Although my driver hardly spoke any English, I sensed it was important to him that I take a good look at the favela, that Rio’s poor get recognized, even if only through a car window.
But sometimes it’s best not to look out the window because motorcyclists frequently come within fractions of an inch of crashing into other vehicles. Anywhere you go, there is a constant stream of honking motorcyclists, daringly weaving through traffic. Though it seems they’ve got the right idea. The ride from Barra to Copacabana can take 40 minutes or a few hours or maybe longer in Rio’s maddeningly unpredictable traffic. Nothing like being stuck in a tunnel under a mountain for 45 minutes.
But the traffic jams do leave time to appreciate the graffiti along the roadway, which looks like museum-worthy art in many places.
About 20 minutes after passing Rocinha, I was dropped off at the Copacabana Palace, a grand, Art Deco-style luxury hotel that presides over the beachfront with its stately presence. Located in the southeastern section of the city, the heavily touristed areas of Copacabana Beach and adjacent Ipanema will be popular destinations for athletes, visitors, and officials. And Copacabana Beach, in particular, looked ready for the onslaught.
Not far from the Copacabana Palace, construction workers put the final touches on the stadium for beach volleyball. The massive two-tiered structure with ocean views is testament to the importance of the sport in Brazilian culture.
All along Copacabana beach there are volleyball nets strung up and awaiting players. Some use the setups for beach volleyball, some for paddle ball, and many for footvolley, a combination of volleyball and soccer that is impressive when played well. As it is on Copacabana Beach, where feet, heads, and chests direct the ball as precisely as hands.
Kiosks line the sand, each one serving a different kind of food. But there is one item common on all menus: coconut water served fresh from large, green coconuts. Mention the word “Olimpico” to the kiosk vendors and it’s a quick double thumbs up. They like the increased beachfront business in the usually slower winter months.
That said, the traditional, if touristy Brazilian beach vibe has been largely overtaken by the Olympics. In addition to a beachside set of Olympic rings perfectly placed for photo ops, sand sculptures with various Olympic and Rio symbols have risen up between the kiosks. And, of course, there is an Olympic superstore right on the beach, a giant temporary structure, selling all kinds of souvenirs and readying for long lines.
But the way the Olympics and the Olympic agenda have overtaken the city doesn’t sit well with many Brazilians, especially given the country’s political and economic crises. Shortly before the Opening Ceremony, Copacabana Beach was the site of anti-government protests. And the torch relay route, which was supposed to run the length of Copacabana Beach, was diverted to avoid demonstrators.
“This is what I consider a ‘Games Coup,’ where ordinary life is taken over by military, special suites of privileges for the ‘IOC family,’ and three weeks of party for the international tourist class,” said Christopher Gaffney, a member of the Comite Popular da Copa e das Olimpiadas, which was one of the principal civil society organizations resisting projects associated with Brazil’s mega-event cycle.
Gaffney has participated in dozens of protests over the last seven years, including one on the day that Rio was announced as host city for the Olympics, and he added: “Rio’s residents will be working hard to keep the streets clean, and the beer glasses full, and it will be a great party, but the hangover is going to last a long time.”
As the sun set, it was time to walk from Copacabana to Ipanema. In the neighborhood made famous by the bossa nova song “The Girl from Ipanema,” there is a beachside boulder that visitors climb for views of the ocean and Two Brothers mountain. The side-by-side peaks ringed by trees rise sharply from the water below. And it is truly breathtaking, the way so many ocean and mountain vistas in Rio are.
No surprise that the USA House in Rio looks out onto Ipanema Beach and Two Brothers Mountain. When I was there, a man with a tray full of colorful, fruit-flavored caipirinhas for sale strolled down the sidewalk across the street from the USA House.
Between the natural beauty visible from almost anywhere in the city and the warmth of the people, it’s often easy to forget the problems that underpin living in Cidade Maravilhosa, the marvelous city, as Rio is nicknamed.
But as darkness settled in, the flickering lights of the Vidigal favela became more visible, winding around one side of Two Brothers mountain. And day and night, anywhere close to venues or places destined to attract Olympic visitors, there is heightened security. Military police, local police, federal police, and so many other uniforms, it’s impossible to keep track.
A few blocks from the beach is the bar Garota de Ipanema, where “The Girl from Ipanema” was written. Yes, it’s touristy with homages to the song all around, but it also boasts good food and a lively atmosphere. As Brazil’s women’s soccer team’s Olympic opener was shown on the bar’s televisions, street musicians drummed away and stuck tambourines through the bar’s windows for tips.
The restaurants quickly filled with hungry diners, Olympic visitors from all around the world who were eager to see another side of Rio, one of its many faces.