On Visiting Rio de Janeiro Ahead of the Olympics

Olympics Features Rio de Janeiro
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On Visiting Rio de Janeiro Ahead of the Olympics

Nightfall in Copacabana. Rain doesn’t seem to be falling as much as hovering in the air. Everything already damp by full darkness, the way you picture the tropics – with humidity and mosquitoes collecting on the inside walls and windows of the JW Marriott, making everyone in the lobby and hotel bar nervous. Or me, at least. I’m standing by the door, tracking my pending Uber ride, watching it do sort of Matrix-like maneuvers on the map, going backwards, sideways, the wait time bouncing between seven and thirteen minutes, even though it seems he’s right there. My skin is lacquered in 98% Deet Jungle Juice, my wrist brandishing a sort of Livestrong-esque rubber band reeking of repelling citronella, I have pre-treated my jeans with something called Permethrin, a chemical I was told by the salesman at REI to spray outside because it is strong enough to paralyze my cat. I’m still nervous, tapping my feet, fanning at phantom black specks that paranoia floats in front of my eyes.

And like that, seemingly by the time I’m buckled into the Peugeot, Ricardo has us parallel to traffic. He’s playing Frogger, moving left, then right, sort of steadily elbowing his way to the far lane before whipping a violent but smooth u-turn on Avenida Atlantica – one that I’ll become so familiar with on future trips to Santa Teresa. Or Botafogo. Or Flamengo. Or Centro. And we collectively let out a gut laugh, at his brazen maneuver, at the teeming traffic and how we got through, and we share a look. It’s a kind of conspiratorial glance, one that breaks our language barrier, an instant equalizer of the type that usually only flows from alcohol. Here we are, cohorts in a sea that is maybe not so crazy. And I loosen, and realize: despite the rain, despite my expectation, the continuous echoing clamor of months of headlines and NPR soundbites, despite the tricks of a worried mind, I actually have yet to see a single mosquito. Nor have I seen hints of communal anxiety. Not back at the hotel where patrons ate salmon and drank Bohemia and watched the Copa Cup. Where the concierge, Carmen, enthusiastically validated my live music selection for the night, with a wide smile, with a “yes, very local!” endorsement. And either way, by now I’m bound for caipirinhas and cerveja and samba and choro and the vestiges of welcoming, shambly Lapa.

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A bit different than how Brazil had seemed from back home. My doctor, with furrowed brow, seemed concerned. “You think I shouldn’t go,” I asked, looking for validation to my own anxiety. “Why?” “You know, the Zika?” “It’s not that. It’s all the social unrest.” My barber informed me one of his clients had offered him free tickets to the Women’s Olympic Soccer Final. “He said he just couldn’t put his wife through the trip there.” “Why?” I responded, but he looked at me funny, in an eye-widened kind of “Duh!” My mom offered to go to a hospital Zika seminar, seemingly to let me know my chances of making it back alive. A native had sternly instructed: “Just never take your phone out of your pocket.” Co-workers continuously kept me updated: “You know they’re still talking about canceling the Olympics?” “Who is?” I would reply. Nobody seemed to know.

But I don’t care about the Olympics. Though fewer understand that, because all Rio is synonymous with currently—aside from Zika, corruption, crime, teeming favelas—is the sporting debacle. Yet here I am, weeks before the Games. And by trip’s end I will have eaten lunch in a favela, had dinner in a tree house, channeled Roger Moore-in-Moonraker by riding a gondola to the top of Sugarloaf. I’ll have been moved to tears by a bearded man in a sweatshirt, looking like everyone’s uncle, shuffling to a seat in a tiny samba jam session, pillow-voicing his Gilberto croon, breaking hearts, before ambling off alone toward the beach in a soft Copacabana fog, guitar slung over shoulder without a case. I’ll have fallen in love more times than is healthy for my marriage. And I will have seen, at most, three mosquitoes. Gotten zero bites. I will have relied on Uber and a preponderance of taxis—omnipresent, cheap, friendly—and a clean and easy subway. A dozen neighborhoods will have been negotiated, solo, in various levels of sobriety, all hours of the night, with zero knowledge of Portuguese beyond “Obrigado”, “bossa nova,” and “merhaba”—which is actually Turkish. And I will not feel threatened once. I will also have cursed Pau Gasol, that one golfer, that other golfer, those tennis players, quitting and blaming Zika, espousing uninformed medical anxieties and in the process denigrating an entire country (Do none of them realize the CDC has a rather helpful website?). And I will have scoffed at the state of journalism, all the fearmongering that nearly kept me home this summer.

Are there problems in Rio? Deep economic and sociopolitical calamities and dirty water? Terrible segregation and lousy public services? Yes. But as a foreigner visiting the city for the first time, all I can say is that things like the Orlando shooting and the threat of a Donald Trump presidency seemed very, very far away during my trip. I saw a city vastly different than the one presented in the media. In fact, it looked like everyone around me was talking about a completely different place…

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Even if all you cover is the basics, Rio is almost impossibly, irresponsibly beautiful. The kind of place that if you’ve never been to any of Europe’s old grand cities, could be overwhelming, in a bad for your heart kind of way. And even if you have, the pulsing energy here might make a storied destination of the mind like, say, Rome, seem something akin to a museum piece.

You could hike, but the more pastel-fattened among us opt for an easy AC-ed van from Copacabana for the jaunt up Corcovado. The aerial views of Christ the Redeemer in pictures never look real, encourage instant airbrush suspicion. Yet 30 minutes through traffic and some switchbacks, and there it is, an even more impressive splay of city and mountain and ocean, with clouds framing the whole picture, the panoramic almost too much to digest, much too much for an iPhone. Beyond impressive even when clustered with hands-stretched, selfie-aiming tourists. Christo looks on from above, stoically. We have a moment, him and I, decide all is well. Well enough to grab a beverage at what has to be the most picturesque juice bar in the world – abacaxi (pineapple) because it’s fun to say, some pasteis, the requisite espresso. One should pick a clear day for the optimal view, though there’s certainly something to the sight of the statue, shrouded in mystical haze, that looks very much like the cover of an especially romantic Jobim album.

The same applies for Sugarloaf. Spot the gondola from various spots around the city and it looks terrifying, the lines like the Wallenda tightrope walk from hell. But the ride is quick, smooth, seamless, almost too modern for fantasies of the James Bond scene. Xanax proved unnecessary – even with planes taking off, cruising just below one’s sightline. Back at sea level, the Botanical Gardens somehow seem even more exotic. Really, it feels more rainforest than garden, or the front lines of the ceaseless battle between Rio’s urbanity and the surrounding greenery. Parque Lage, a former residence of the eponymous industrialist, is really where the dichotomy comes together in a type of lost world serenity: the ornate mansion, framed against the jungle and her screaming monkeys, Cristo again, in full profile, spying down on his city from on high in the background. But it’s really not so rustic. For example, an obscenely exquisite – and expensive – tasting lunch can be had just across the street and around the corner, at one of Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants, the “French with Brazilian Soul” spot, Olympe.

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Though the tour books might have you believe the neighborhood long ago peaked, to stay, to sleep, to start, Copacabana still feels very much the place. There’s little touristy once off the main drag, or, really, by our definitions of touristy, even on the main drag. Starting a day with an açaí – an Amazonian superberry – is the strongest morning move. At least based on the Popeye-like flex and authoritative head nod the proprietor at Arataca gave in approval of my order. It’s more like a pasty blue porridge than juice, and feels especially vigor-inducing when followed by a shot of espresso. Proper time should eventually be spent at Bossa Nova & Companhia, one of the country’s foremost record purveyors. Pick up Gilberto’s Amoroso, a CD of whomever you saw last night, maybe a guitar tablature book on the work of Toquinho, and certainly the definitive narrative of the history of Brazil’s most seductive genre – Ruy Castro’s “Bossa Nova.” Later, if lucky, around the corner at Bottles Bar, where a young Sergio Mendes cut his teeth, in the infamous Beco das Garrafas alley, you can see the likes of Marcel Powell – son of Baden Powell, himself maybe the Jimi Hendrix of Brazilian guitar. Marcell darts around the fretboard in a fluidity of mega-modern classical otherness, virtuosic, chaotic and sentimental at once. It’s a kind of ear-fuck not for the faint, or empty stomach. For that, Pavão Azul seems a place as good as any, to stand outside, pound huge, hoppy ‘Colorado’ brews, gesticulate, ready yourself for the night, eat a variety of pasteis and what some say are the best cod fritters (bolinhos de bacalhão) in a town lousy with them. Or there is Galeto Sat’s, with an in-house charcoal pit, blackened, moist chicken, savory sausage (linguiça). It’s a low-ceilinged sliver of a bar, like so many others in an endless sea here, them all enough to invoke that New York-ish feel of regret, of missing out on so much, of not getting enough life to taste it all.

If all this isn’t it enough, Ipanema is always around the corner. From the multitudes of options, I found myself contentedly half-drunk at Canastra Bar. Young, hip, bouncing with energy and somebody’s iPod full of the Stones and American classic rock – in Brooklyn it’s the kind of place you’d need to be wearing the right hat, tattoos, to avoid haughty indifference. But here it is all warm, arms-wide-like-Cristo, Carioca welcome. Burrata and carpaccio, Brazilian wine or Heineken, it’s still mostly about doing as the locals do – standing outside, again, talking fervently, laughing harder, drinking in the warm night, everything backed by the mural-strewn concrete jungle and palm trees just steps from the most beautiful beach in man’s history.

But Lapa remains the end target of most proper, musical nights – as my first Uber venture led me, dumping my liberated spirit just under the Carioca Aqueduct. I ended up at Semente, seated at the bar, sipping a frigid lime explosion of cachaca, with Ze Paulo Becker ripping jazz guitar, or choro, with notey fluidity, a laid back rhythmic propulsion, an unaffected cool matched only by the crowd. Which is of the more serious, listening variety. Then it was frosty Heinekens on the mural-strewn back patio, crumbly in an Old World, French Quarter way, reeking of good pot, rife with midnight juju, the essence of a neighborhood where João Gilberto learned the finer points of marijuana just before inventing the beat, changing music and what it means to be sentimental, to be cool. It’s the same vibe found over at Carioca da Gema, with the waiters singing nostalgically, heartily along with every song, zipping around with trays of spicy cheeseburgers, icy drinks. Or, really, the vibe of any of the dozens of spots with pandeiro beats wafting out doors just after nightfall around the Avenida Mem de Sá or Rua do Lavradio.

There’s also Rio Scenarium. A resplendent three story vomitorium of bric-a-brac, pulsing samba till the wee hours, and partiers. So many partiers. Heading across the street for a more low-key chopp at Casa Momus is a good break, there the band sets up right in the doorway, somebody beating the triangle with merciless wrist action, everybody nodding their head, fancy jazz chords up and down the neck of a classical guitar. For a peaceful and not-so-quiet nightcap, one can get top-shelfy about cachaca at Mangue Seco Cachacaria. Sitting outside, watching the late night flow go by in a pulsing cobblestone pedestrian mall of bars and music, it looks like New Orleans, Puerto Vallarta, and Naples, Italy somehow combined for a bastardized South American baby. Caribbean, Latin, crumbly European in the same gene basket.

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If said baby were raised in 50’s era North Beach, it might resemble the hill neighborhood of Santa Teresa. A bohemian enclave, a spot with a feel it’s own within a city for which the same could be said near everywhere. It’s a trove of winding streets, sweeping views, cozy bars, dreamy cafes, and color. Incessant street color. Breakfast at Cafe do Alto highlights the cuisine of the country’s northeast, like a tapioca tortilla stuffed with butter cheese and shredded beef. A good base layer for the feijoada – national dish – at Bar do Mineiro. It’s a gumbo-ish, porky, bean affair, the stew of the slaves who had to make do with the master’s cutoffs. You’ll feel full, and eventually, later, clean. After all this, haute cuisine in a tree house sounds daunting. But there’s an elevator, and aside all the beef and octopus and crisp service at Aprazivel, the view is worth the price of admission itself. Or you can buy records on the street, maybe sip away an afternoon over chocolatey cappuccinos at the recklessly leafy patio at Cafecito. Or just walk, soaking in the artsy type of quietude, and eventually wander over to singular, striking Escadaria Selaron – the brightly tiled staircase that feels like the neighborhood’s beating, languorous heart.

It’s there I find a street guitar player, doing something a bit different. His picking hand holds a meat skewer, looking like a drumstick, and at the same time, a shaking device, a caxixi, like a mini maraca that comes from capoeira – the acrobatic Brazilian martial art-evoking dance. It’s an instrument that is believed to evoke good spirits, repress the bad. And he’s banging the guitar’s body, in time, beat-boxing the wood, hitting the strings at the same time, strumming or something like it, fretting bossa-like, smoothly. The bass is steady on the 1 and the 3, the percussive sound rattly, spicy. His voice warbles low and clear. It’s all a maelstrom of rhythm and harmony, belted out over the tourist-covered steps, everything combined at once. Between songs I ask, marvel, note his technique: “I’ve never seen anyone do that before.” He shatters my expectation of no-English, nodding, graciously, gratefully, before answering in almost disbelief at his hands, summing it all up: “Either have I.”

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