After a brief respite, I feel rested and ready to resume the telling of my tale. Now where to begin again? Since I have spent the majority of the past three weeks in Rio de Janeiro, I think that place deserves a spot in my story. This is the problem: I am lazy.

I have been telling myself I will write a blog post about Rio de Janeiro for the past three weeks. In my defense, it was an action-packed period of time and I did not really have any time alone. So I shirked my self-imposed writing duties to frolic around the city instead. Now that I have left and am in a new spot with an opportunity to slow down and get back to my writing, I feel overwhelmed: how do I begin to explain all that I experienced during my time in the city? There is so much written about the famous “Rio” already, that anything I will say is bound to be a repeat of someone else´s account of the place. But anyway, I will try to do it some justice. So without further ado, I shall now present my personal account of the place. Here goes:

First of all, geography. It is the most visually-stunning urban landscape I have ever seen. Everyone knows the famous panoramic view of the mountains with Christ the Redeemer towering over the white sand beaches and the ocean. Flying into the center of the city, looking out over all of this from my seat in the plane truly took my breath away. I sat there gaping out the plane window not only because it is one of the most photographed, most famous sights in all the world, but because it is truly incredible. These amazing chunks of rounded-off rock jut up basically straight from the sea and everything in between is forest and beach and sprawling buildings. The city streets and buildings of Rio de Janeiro are in and around and inseparable from the natural landscape. The fact that all of these different components (beach and sea, forest and mountain, concrete and asphalt) coexist together in one huge juxtaposing conglomerate still blows my mind: vast, sweeping nature intertwined with a web of city streets and boroughs. Maybe the city´s radical physical contradictions lead to its radical ideological contradictions…

Rio de Janeiro is infamous for being a city where extreme wealth and extreme poverty come face to face. I have read all too many essays on the issue, but a person that I met while I was there explained it to me in new and memorable way that I feel compelled to share. We were standing on the balcony of her family´s house in the favela looking out over the skyline (side note: one of the benefits of living in a favela = amazing view of the scenery below) and talking about the differences between how a tourist sees the city and how a local in her position sees it: “What you guys see when you go to Copacabana or go to the top of the Corcovado, that is the `Rio´ that everyone talks about. Where we are here is the `de Janeiro.´” What she was referring to was the contrast between the glitz and glamour of an internationally famous travel destination against the realities of everyday life in a poor part of the city. I got to see a little of both, and although the great divide between the so-called “haves” and “have nots” does exist, it is an oversimplified view of an immensely multilayered city.

The favelas are such a highly publicized aspect of the city that I was expecting to be shocked by the scene there, but I honestly found them to be quite similar to a lot of the places that I was traveling around Brazil before I got to Rio de Janeiro: they are humble neighborhoods with real people going about their daily life: working, stopping at a market or café, walking home from school. They are undoubtedly poor neighborhoods with all the problems that come with poverty, but poor neighborhoods exist everywhere. I imagine that the reason why favelas get so much international attention when similarly impoverished areas exist in all cities  is because a.) they climb the hillsides, giving them a particularly recognizable and interesting aesthetic and b.) because they exist next to the beauty of “Rio” which goes back to the whole juxtaposition concept. Anyway, I am no expert, and my understanding of the workings of the favelas is limited, because I spent the vast majority of my time in more elegant areas.

My temporary home in Rio, where I stayed with Marcus and Agatha (my Couchsurfing hosts) was situated in the Lagoa neighborhood of Rio. The house was incredible: a large, multistoried, single-family home at the base of the Corcovado with incredible views of the surrounding hills and the lake below. I slept in the terrace room for a majority of my time there and woke every morning to sunlight streaming through the multitude of windows and a large, stone Christ watching over me. Pretty nice digs, especially when you consider the fact that I stayed there for ten days for free… Oh, and we had an incredible view of the favela from the terrace, by the way. So I spent a week there before my family came. Then we were 18, in all our glory.

My trip changed immensely and immediately when I met up with my family. No more planning bus trips and seeking out cheap hostels, no more eating street food and taking the bus everywhere. With Grandma in charge, it was a fancy hotel on Copacabana beach, nice restaurants with sprawling buffets and tours organized for the entire group. A big change in style of travel, indeed. So we spent Christmas at Copacabana beach with the thousands of other tourists and experienced the Rio side of things: we watched Stevie Wonder and Gilberto Gil play to a crowd of some 300,000 on the beach, took many, many pictures at the top of various tourist landmarks, and ate a lot of food. We went for a few days to Iguaçu and then the family left to go back home, and I stayed in Rio.

I went back to Marcus´ house and spent the most memorable and incredible New Years. I met my friend Fanny at Copacabana and we joined the throngs of white-clad revelers on the beach where there were multiple stages with free live concerts. We drank a couple caipirhinas and then stripped down to our underwear just before midnight to jump in the ocean. Then we stood, dripping with sea water on the beach and watched the fireworks which were an absolutely breathtaking sight to behold. It was a beautiful atmosphere, joyous I might say. We went back to the house where we spent the rest of the night swimming in the pool, getting haircuts from an only slightly inebriated hairstylist friend and finally watching the sun come up from our amazing spot on the terrace. This is the beautiful life.

So in between the privileged vacation I lived there and the unpretentious life of some locals that I got to glimpse, in between the nature and the city streets, in between the Rio and the de Janeiro, I got to experience a lot of Rio de Janeiro: I climbed the Sugar Loaf with James which was an incredible way to see the city from yet another perspective: hanging off the side of a mountain that overlooks the entire panorama. We got to the top with dozens of tourists (a few of whom were taking our pictures) and then rode the cable car, barefoot, back down to the bottom to retrieve our packs. The next day, I went to into the favela with a French girl, who was also staying at Marcus´ house, to attend a capoeira class. The next few days I hobbled around the city. After the seven pitches scaling the Pão de Acuçar followed by a night of high kicks and ducking down to avoid taking my partner´s high kicks in the face, my aching muscles were struggling to carry around my own body weight, but I still managed to get around a bit. I saw the botanic garden area, went to a rendition of “A Midsummer Night´s Dream” in an awesome little theater, hit up the nightlife in Lapa, and people-watched on the famous Rio beaches.

So in conclusion, Rio de Janeiro is so much. It is nature mixed with city, wealth mixed with poverty, mountain mixed with sea. For me, it was a wonderful time with my beautiful family and also a time to make new friends. It was a time for activity, discovery of a huge and varied city (which after spending over two weeks in, I still feel like I barely know.) It was endless sights, crazy holiday hubbub, noise and heat, tourists and cariocas… incredible.

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