In Rio we stayed in the district of Santa Teresa. It’s an old neighbourhood folded between ridges and clefts of thick green forest, with steep undulations and sudden surprising vistas of downtown or harbour. The houses cluster on the hillsides, their ornate facades behind wrought iron gates and high walls all gently peeling in the humidity.
‘Lots of gringos live here’, said our English friend who has settled in Rio. I’m not surprised. It’s only a fifteen-minute climb uphill from the hectic centre but it feels far more remote, almost like a mountain village. Our room had views over uninterrupted rainforest greenery to the statue of Christ the Redeemer on its distant ridge.
Until recently picturesque old trams ran up and down these switchback roads but there was a major accident and the routes were closed. Now Santa Teresa is connected to the city and beaches by boneshaker buses driven at frighteningly high speed. Everyone uses them, but it’s a wild ride.
The area’s appearance of rural calm is an illusion, anyway. We were sitting at breakfast one morning when we heard a burst of sharp pop-pop-popping. The group of suits at the next table didn’t draw breath in their boasting, presumably thinking it was firecrackers, but I noticed that the waiter stepped sharply back from the window.
Our friend nodded. ‘Gunfire. There is a turf war going on in the favela across the road. Bad news for Santa Teresa’. This was barely a hundred yards from where we were lounging over our pot of coffee and hot croissants.
Rio’s mix brings such contrasts brutally to the attention.
The favelas creep up the hillsides like lava flowing in reverse, dense encrustations of brick and concrete with winding seams of unmade roads where no one but the occupants and the police and the private militias dares to tread. They are not shanty towns, exactly. Their existence might be unauthorised but the houses look quite solid, some of them with tiny gardens and flowery terraces. There is (pirated) power and running water, even shops and cafes–but what is missing is basic safety. The drug wars are waged three ways, between criminals and police and militias and there is no reassuring good versus bad, only the gradations of different shades of bad. In the midst of daily violence and shootings men and women have to get up and go to work, and children play and try to grow up in the dangerous lanes.
I know about the brave gardens, even nose-thumbing plunge pools, because we went for a ride on a gondola, rising exactly like a ski-lift from the inner-city skirts of Bonsuccesso, up and over the oldest and biggest favela in Rio. The local mayor imported the idea from Medellin, and by making this investment he hoped to bring tourists and their dollars to his area. I don’t think it’s working, unfortunately. Our hotel receptionist looked utterly aghast when we told her we planned to go up there. She couldn’t give us directions because she had never visited that quarter of her own city. Why did we want to go? There are nice shops and restaurants down at Copacabana…
In the event there was more shooting, a lot of it, as we sailed over the tiers of houses. The gondola came to an abrupt halt and we swung there, peering down into the heart of the favela. The lanes had emptied, nothing stirred. We sat in silence until the shooting petered out, the cabin jerked and we were brought down again to Bonsuccesso. Half an hour later we were eating salt cod balls and drinking beer in a traditional café down at the docks in Gamboa. An hour after that we were stretched out under parasols beside the hotel swimming pool. For the fortunate, I believe that’s a not untypical Rio experience.
We also saw the glass apartments and chic hotels lining the city beaches, and sat in old-world cafes overlooking the ocean. We used the efficient metro as well as the buses, and one day we walked all the way along the sands from Leblon to Ipanema and on to the far end of Copacabana, an exhilarating walk of five miles or so. Two chancers did try to mug us at knife-point on the beach right in front of the Copacabana Palace Hotel, but no harm was done and they didn’t get away with anything. Rather like the Queen Mother in the East End, in fact, I felt afterwards I could hold my head up with the cariocas.
Rio is gorgeous to look at. The crumbling stucco, vivid colours and jungle greenery sing under the blue skies, and when it rains (which it did OFTEN) water darkens the plasterwork, sluices down cobbled streets and drums on glossy leaves. The people we met were as brisk and cynical as city-dwellers anywhere, and a lot of them looked weary, but they didn’t seem in any way dampened by it. Rio must be a maddening, intriguing and energising place to live in.
It was only a week: hardly a glimpse. Not really enough to understand anything. There’s the defining chafe of travel, all over again – in order to be travelling you must move on.
I’ll have to go back some day. I say this all the time…..