"Bad news is always good news for newspapers," my guide Sonia tells me while we linger over Brazilian coffee. I'm in Rio de Janeiro intent on discussing the various lingering descriptions, one being the high rate of crime that seems to grab international headlines.
Been there, seen that, bought the t-shirt? Well, Cariocas (Rio residents) can be seen throughout the city proudly wearing tops stating new safeguards since the government has developed a new program to prevent crime and to assist the poor.
"All those stories about muggings has marred the image of Rio, but the fact is it's now as safe as any major city," Sonia tells me. During my stay I see patrolling police near the beach areas and mid town. In fact, there's been an increase of 5,000 police and special tourist police who speak English and trained under the supervision of the tourism department. Who knows better the needs of the traveler?
All that said, the city of six million celebrated its 500th birthday in April 2000 and is sambaed its way into the millennium with this new safety agenda.
I'm sitting in one great traffic jam but my eyes aren't tearing and I'm not gasping for breath. Why? It seems that the byproduct of the vast sugar cane industry in brazil, is alcohol and 70% of the cars in the country are run on this and not petrol. Good eco-sense, I conclude.
Blessed with incredibly picture-perfect beaches, it seems any hour of the day or night that I pass the sun-kissed sands of Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon, there's a soccer game in progress. Cariocas have a passion for that sport and have even adapted it with a volleyball net. The rules of foot-volley, is that you don't touch the ball with your hands. Difficult as it may sound, it's the game of choice on the waterfront. This love seems second only to the care taken of their bodies. Plastic surgery is also high on their wish priority list. When I asked about the perfect proportions I see everywhere, I was told that by 16 years old, any problematic area is looked after by liposuction, a nip and tuck a new nose, changed by the plethora of skilled cosmetic surgeons. The beach is filled with "10's" and the swim wear, still referred to as "dental floss" fits the descriptions perfectly, barely covering the strategic spots. In this predominately Catholic country, I am surprised that no one seems to want to cover up his/her assets. The beach area is centre stage for almost everything. Even the sidewalk has been well thought out with unique designs of hand made indigenous soapstone in red, black and white. "These colours represent our Indian, black and white population," Sonia proudly tells me.
Which brings me to the famous song, The Girl from Ipanema. Tall, tan and lovely, the then 15 years old Helo Pinheira caught the attention of songwriters Vinicius de Moraes and Dom Jobim as she walked to the beach each morning. As they sat sipping their morning brew at the Veloso Bar, its original name), they wrote the now famous Garota de Ipanema and created the "myth". Memorabilia of that song are displayed and for sale. Girls heading to the beaches still could make a songwriter's head and heart spin. Word is that Pinheira, closing in on 60, still turns heads. Gazing over my grilled chicken and cheese sandwich, at this now famous eatery on Rua Prudente de Morias, I note the Atlantic Ocean is in view, tables are filled and there's a noisy buzz of conversation. The sun provides a good excuse to order the local beer, Brahma.
In Rio it seems everyone smiles, the pace is slow and time is flexible. With my commitment to deadlines and promptness, I think I'd be on the verge of a nervous breakdown within a week. The city, with a bay, ocean, lakes, rivers and rain forest, doesn't have "attitude" or a major dedication to work. A standard joke is that the huge statue of Christ, overlooking the city from Corcovado, his arms outstretched, will applaud when the Cariocas start a new work ethic. The statue, inaugurated in 1931 is even more impressive up close. It weighs 700 tons and is 120 feet high.
I decide to take a side trip to Petropolis, 60 kilometres from Rio on a seriously curvy road. It is 800 metres elevation and cooler in the summer than Rio. For that reason the Emperor Dom Pedro II built his summer palace there in 1845. At the door of what is now the Museo Imperial (Avenida 7 de Setembro), I'm given huge felt slip of slippers so as not to mark the stunning wooden floors. The jewel in the crown here is exactly that. Weighing over 1000 grams with 639 diamonds and 77 pearls, it is creating a stir among the teenagers who are visiting with their school. The dining room, glassed in, is set up for a very regal gala dinner. The music room naturally lives up to its name by having some rare instruments. Upstairs there is a wonderful shell shaped cradle of Madeira wood, plus several interesting rooms of period furniture. Over 160,000 items are in the archives therefore this is a perfect reference place for scholars. I shove my way through the throngs of more school children who are giggling, eating ices and not paying too much attention to the greenhouse-looking Crystal Palace (Parca da Confluencia at Rua Alfredo Pacha). Although it was built by Dom Pedro as an exhibition hall, it is now, as then, also the venue for balls and concerts. Built in France and made of crystal, it opened in 1884. Now the only remaining original part is a crystal chandelier. Even the wood cupolas and iron roof has been redone. The most dominant building is the Cathedral (rua Sao Pedro de Alcanara 60). It holds the remains of Dom Pedro. However, today it is closed so I wander beside the Palatinado River which leads from the cathedral and is flanked on both sides by stately mansions. One is Casa da Princesa Isabel, another in Portuguese Colonial architecture is surrounded by massive English wrought iron gates. Quite unexpected is a sweet typical German colonial gingerbread house, which seems out of place with the other estates.
It has been a quiet but historically interesting day, but I can't wait to return to the hustle and gyrations, the fun and beauty of Rio de Janeiro.
By Barbara Kingstone
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