Saudade do Rio


It’s been a while, since I posted anything here. Blame it on life, living, and a growing sense of what Talking Heads used to growl about. Say something once.. why say it again?

I was dragged out of hibernation by Lily, who edits Manic, a magazine for the Independent. This piece appeared there a week ago. It gave me an opportunity to get out of my current skin. And be in a place I am now linked to, that I need to go visit, again. Because it is a place that serves as a mirror to the canvas of my life.

When the rains come, I long to escape. A year ago, I succumbed to a growing sense that time was running out for doing things on impulse – and escaped to Rio for the year end.

Rio. The word alone triggers a chain of postcard clichés. That Duran Duran video. Jesus on Corcovado with his arms sweeping over Sugar Loaf mountain. Carnaval. The land of samba, the tanga, verde e amarelo, beautiful football, beautiful people and all night parties. Then the other Rio… the dark underbelly of violent crime, drug culture, corrupt police, Central Station and City of God.

Everything about Rio is a contradiction
. It’s all black or white. You will either love it or run away fast, murmured the Sicilian seated next to me, as the Varig flight touched down at Tom Jobim Airport. He was in Rio for his 15th visit.

Rio is a full frontal assault to the senses. You wake up suddenly to the sound of bird song or a street vendor selling water melons. You leave an Alexander Calder exhibition downtown, walk round one block and find a cow tied to some railings. Everything is cheek by jowl. The ocean and the sand and the great curves of the beaches with the elegant high-rise hotels and apartments. And glued, on the hills, at the edge of the forest, in full view of the privileged, is the scar of the favelas.

You have to quickly get into the swing of things
. Especially, if like me, you only have 14 days to burn. I was told to leave my watch and credit card at home and to dress ‘poor’. We’re lucky – we tan quickly and blend in.

But we’re not Cariocas. To understand them, you have to first understand something about their music. And then, start tuning to the rhythm of their conversations. And finally, you will notice the way they hold themselves, the way they walk. And how they dance.

Music is ageless. I watched the legendary Caetano Veloso play under a yellow moon in a cauldron called the Circo Voador. At times he was pure nectar, sometimes his backing band made Nine Inch Nails seem tame. At Trapiche Gamboa, kids aged 15 to 70 sang and danced the night away to the uplifting samba of Galo Canto’ and several litres of Chopp. The next morning, Alexandre, dentist cum samba connoisseur, turned up with a boxful of CDs because I’d said I really wanted to get into mu’sica brasileira.

Rhythm is everywhere. Someone is always tapping away on a table, waiting for a coffee, humming a tune. Women have hips, and use them to killer effect during a samba. In Laranjeiras, every Saturday afternoon, musicians meet up in the little square and play for hours, in return for a drink, or two.

Sometimes, things get weird. An impromptu trip to an exhibition of graffiti art led us past the market and the saffron shops and men in string vests and the black mamacita smoking a big joint in an alley. That was when I realised the exhibition venue was the Hotel Nicacio, and that ‘Sex Art’ was a project by local artists to paint the walls of a thriving brothel.

You need to watch your back. Car journeys are planned to reduce the number of potential red light stops, and the risk of car-jackings. One Sunday, en route to the amazing La Plancha, a kid not older than 7 ran in front of our car as we cruised to a red light stop in broad daylight. He took one look at us and raised his t-shirt over his head for a second. Then he juggled three red balls high above his head. Leo lowered the window a hairline crack and handed two reais to the kid, who flashed a white grin and scampered to the side as the lights turned green. “What was that all about?” I said. “That’s to show us he didn’t have a gun,” said Brunno, as another Tom Jobim number purred. It was only later that Leo told me his mother’s Toyota was bullet-proof.

Eating and drinking is great value. Think fruit, juice, fish, rice and beans, finger food, real Brazilian coffee. Nothing quenches your thirst quite like agua de coco. Or a Guarana’. Or a cachaca. Or a chopp.

Rio is a beautiful, colourful mess, with Cariocas as its glue. Skimpy lycra bikins and havaianas jostle for space with nail parlours and cosmetic surgeons. Hedonism is institutionalised – on every beach, on every paved sidewalk. From Copacabana to Ipanema to Barra. On an apartment on the 21st floor, you look over Lagoa, and wonder if you are in a dream. Because even favelas twinkle in the dark.

Sometimes, when I am stuck in a jam, I close my eyes and succumb to a saudade for Rio. A longing for what is now gone, but which might return in a distant future.

Pencil in 2014, when the beautiful game goes to Brazil.

Go to Rio.

Before you lose the urge to do things on impulse.

My top 10 things to do in Rio

Before you get to Rio: befriend a local. Find someone on Facebook. That way you stay safe, don’t get hassled by street vendors and live like a carioca.

1. Get a snapshot with your own Personal Jesus at Corcovado. Pinch yourself when you do your slow 360 degrees.

2. Settle down for the evening at the Academia da Cachaça in Leblon. Try the cachaça with honey. And then the 30 other variants. Try the feijoada. Watch the laughter.

3. Go body watching on a beach. The best beaches are further away. The best bodies tend to stay central.

4. Cross the bridge to Niteroi. Feast your eyes on Niemeyer’s MAC, the most beautiful museum on the planet. Drive to the top of the mountain and face the city across the bay. Be brave, tag on to a hang-glider buddy and jump over the edge.

5. Watch the posers and rollerbladers at Avenida Atlantica on a Sunday. Follow up with a detox breakfast of juice and pancakes at Ipanema. Or head straight to Boteco Belmonte in Flamengo for pasteis and empadas.

6. Take the rattling trolley at Santa Teresa. Have lunch at Sobrenatural. Go back in the evening for some ice-cold Chopp at Bar do Gomez. Hug strangers.

7. Roam downtown. Buy saffron in the market. Find some peace in the Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet. Peek into the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. Sip tea in the elegant Colombo café.

8. Hire a car and in two hours you are in Buzios on the Costa do Sol. Stay at the Pousada dos Gravata’s in Geriba’. Open the door to your room, and you’re on a sandy beach.

9. Go and dance with the multitudes at Trapiche Gamboa. Watch a samba school rehearse. Do your funky chicken.

10. Spend your last night watching the sunset at Ipanema. Make a wish. Life is beautiful.

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