Experiencing My New Favorite City: Rio de Janeiro

Jackie Steves is guest-hosting her Dad’s blog with 17 posts in 17 days. Follow the adventures of Andy and Jackie Steves as they ‘ the first Steves to venture into South America ‘ report on their experience.

Andy and I on the rustic old-school tram running from the city center up the hill to Santa Teresa.

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The view from the top of Parque das Ruínas.

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The Lapa Steps by Selarón.

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For dinner back in Rio we metroed to the world-famous beach, Ipanema. Public transportation (the subway and the buses) here is extremely convenient. It helps that the city sprawls along the water in a line.

After sundown, the promenade that runs along the beach is still a stream of beautiful fit Brazilians walking, running, rollerblading, bicycling, flirting, and playing. On the sand just below, beach volleyball and soccer are still going too.

As we perused restaurants, we missed how cheap Argentina and Peru had been. Brazil was no cheaper than the States, it seemed.

In the morning our guide, Elvarado (again, hired through Wildland Adventures), picked us up at our hostel to take us on a Historic City-Center tour. He recounted a history that resonated with those we heard in Peru and Argentina ‘ of natives, European conquest, struggle for and achievement of independence, turbulent politics during the 20th century, and finally a brighter picture of better governance and prosperity in the new millennium. But Brazil stands out from the other two for being colonized by Portuguese instead of Spanish and for experiencing a peaceful transition to independence. Today the president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has a 90 percent approval rating for applying smart economic policy to pull many out of poverty ‘ along the lines of distributing loans to motivate production. A woman is next in command in Lula’s party, so in a few months, when his two terms have run out, Brazil is expected to have a female president!

We visited a few monuments and churches. Most memorable was a Franciscan convent ‘ a church interior excessively and magnificently clad in gold.

We walked for hours, stopping every once in a while at the very convenient juice shops on nearly every other corner. They make the most refreshing smoothies out of all kinds of tropical fruits. They also serve coffee, cakes, sandwiches, etc. You usually just stand at the bar while you have a snack. I tried an açai smoothie, which I thought was far better than anything I’ve ever had at Jamba Juice.

Besides a female president, Rio has a lot to look forward to. They are working hard to improve their city, by cracking down on crime and developing infrastructure, in anticipation for the World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016.

Elvarado took us to the neighborhood where he lives, Santa Teresa, by way of old rickety tram. This quieter residential town is smack-dab in the middle of the greater metropolis, and the very old tram that rides up the hill from the city center passes through scenic jungle surroundings. The 10-minute ride was like transporting us into story land. The setting: bohemian hill town populated by artists and intellectuals who all take care of each other’s kids and take time to stop and chat to whomever they meet while strolling the cobblestones. The Great Depression led to the abandonment of the grand abodes once owned by some of Rio’s upper class. The ’60s brought hippies to reoccupy the dilapidated hillside mansions.

We stopped at the neighborhood bar so Elvarado could say hi to three of his friends: a sculptor, a professor, and a fellow tour guide, who were having their midday beer. This bar doubles as a convenience shop, with a rainbow of essentials arranged like a grand piece of artwork against the wall behind the bar.

We couldn’t get far before Elvarado would run into another friend, this time a tiny old woman with a weathered potato-skin face and a big, crooked-tooth, lipless smile that made my day. They embraced and spoke words we couldn’t understand. Elvarado went on to explain that she was their neighborhood’s Carnaval queen, a woman always loved and respected by all.

We climbed hills and stairs to Parque das Ruínas, the ruins of a hilltop mansion inhabited 80 years past by an extremely wealthy female patron of the arts. At the very top of her house was a panoramic view of the city from her balcony! And I thought we were spoiled with the Puget Sound view from our house. This view was something else. The expansive bay set off by mountains, a sprawling dance of skyscrapers. She would have grand parties up here, but this house too fell into disrepair following her death and was even inhabited by homeless people for a few decades. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t mind being homeless if I got to crash up here!

We descended what look like normal stairs as you walk down, but when you turn around you see an explosion of color in a mosaic that turns the stairs into a playful marvel. This long flight of stairs is tiled by Selarón, a Chilean artist. He’s toiled for decades, picking tiles from his ventures all over the world to add to his masterpiece. His signature icon, which you see in many of the tiles he paints himself, is a dog with a pregnant woman. Pictures of the artist himself, with a huge flamboyant mustache, show him to be as quirky as his characteristic symbol. Despite the fact that the stairs look complete, all filled in with tile, it is actually always a work-in-progress, which he calls his “great madness.” A fun fact we learned: hip-hop producers Snoop Dogg and Pharell filmed parts of their “Beautiful” music video on these steps.

I thought my own quirky dad would appreciate this bizarre artist and his tile festival of stairs as much as I did, so I picked him up a signature tile of Selarón and a postcard. The 10 reals ($5 US) that I paid will go toward funding Selarón’s work.

We parted with Elvarado at the bottom of the stairs to tackle a couple of museums on our own. The Museum of Fine Arts had an impressively innovative floor of modern art I particularly enjoyed. The Historical Museum enlightened us on the indigenous natives of Brazil, the country’s history of slavery, and many other important topics.

At the hostel we met a whole crew of fun backpackers (Irish, Moroccan, British, Italian) and shared taxis to Lapa, the neighborhood downtown that has fantastic street parties on Friday nights. What a scene! The four blocks were absolutely teeming with young revelers. Where cars would usually go stood stands upon stands of food and drink.

We observed a mesmerizing African drum show. Twenty-some drums, an orchestra of percussion. Even gringos couldn’t help moving to the beat.

Next we came up to a couple of guys performing Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian art form invented by slaves to secretly practice fighting by disguising it in the form of a dance. It involved crazy acrobatics like I’ve never seen! They’re figuratively fighting, but it’s actually a beautiful dance with incredible coordination and skill.

I was a kid in a candy store on the streets in this part of Rio ‘ so many cool sights to drool at. We explored for hours, beers in hand. We even ran into our friends from Ilha Grande!

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