29th July 1999: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Day 8 overall)
Rio is the considered the start of our South American adventure. For me, it is a symbol of the other side of the world, a place beyond the exotic, where our adventure gets real and hopefully, if we survive – where it will end.
Our overnight flight from New York had been quite social as aeroplane flights go. Mark and Jono were a couple of seats away from me but I didn’t feel alone for long. I made friends with two Brazilian girls – Renata and Mirna who lived in Belo Horizonte and had given me their numbers telling us to come and stay if we were heading that way. I’d also had some interesting chats with one of the air stewards – Charles – whose seat was opposite me; as well as an American musician who lived in Rio and gave me a few travel tips – although mostly about where not to go, not to trust anybody and to be careful – which was nice of him but was somewhat concerning!
Our first challenge was to find our three rucksacks. The bags with almost everything we owned and would need for the next year had arrived the day before us on the overbooked flight we had not taken. However, it was no trouble once we found the secured luggage area and once we were through customs – we wondered what to do next. Although we had a few high-level ideas about some things to include in our loose itinerary – see Machu Picchu, travel up the Amazon, have fun – we had decided not to try and book ahead in the spirit of free-wheeling adventure. We didn’t feel quite so adventurous as we headed to the airports’ Information Bureau who were able to help us with ideas on a cheap place to stay tonight and some instructions on how to get there.
A coach took us from the airport all the way into the centre of Rio and to Copacabana which was where the hotel the Information Bureau had recommended was. The part of Rio around the airport seemed desperately poor with favelas (shanty towns) everywhere and then it turned to wealthier, busier streets as we got closer towards Copacabana. Apart from the different look of the Brazilians – we could have been travelling down Oxford Street. However, the scenery beyond the streets we were travelling through was amazing and definitely unlike anything in London. Beyond the buildings where huge mountains covered in sheer rocks and heavily forests. I recognised the iconic Sugarloaf Mountain off to one side which really did look an upturned load of bread sticking right up out of the ground and sheer on all sides.
The coach drove right past the famous Copacabana beach but it looked quiet. It was 4pm and the sun had already fallen behind the mountains and it is also winter here in the southern hemisphere. The 27 degree temperature may be balmy for an Englishman friendly but maybe that is too cold for the Brazilians! However, there were a few people playing foot volleyball (volleyball with no hands – just feet!) and the beach itself was beautiful. A fifty-foot-deep stretch of golden sand leading down to the large crashing waves and beyond, a deep blue sea. The beach stretched around the bay as far as we could see.
We were dropped off somewhere along the beach road and we set out to find the hotel armed with the little paper map we picked up at the airport. As we walked down various back streets, I found myself feeling a little uncomfortable with all the warnings we had read and heard but it didn’t take too long before we found the ‘Copacabana Chalet‘ which was not far from the beach and cost £8 pp. The rooms were a bit happy and there was no bedding beyond a thin brown mattress but it had a bathroom and suited us fine. There were lockers for valuables into which we stuffed a fair bit locking them with our own padlocks before getting changed and heading out to the beach.
Mark, Jono and I all marvelled about how good it felt to be here as we strolled along the pavement that followed the beach. The hotels along the front seemed a bit tacky but the views across the bay were beautiful. Along the walk, some people who were playing down on the sand invited us to come and play whatever it was they were playing and although it seemed friendly, I was wary that it was a distraction with some thieving intent. We put the day packs close to where we joined in with a small group – two girls and an old man – were hitting a small hacky-sack with their hands into the air trying to keep it going. We were all quite pathetic, but they were friendly and played for about half an hour whilst keeping a close eye on our bags – but no one else came close. They thanked us for the game and we moved on further down the beach just enjoying the warmth and fresh air of this new environment.
On our way back to the hotel, we found a shop and picked up some bread, cheese and salami and created a little sandwich feast which we ate in the room. It was only 8pm but after a long flight of little sleep and our antics on the beach – we were ready for bed. Our ‘air-tight’ inner bags covered in a towel made for a good pillow for about an hour before they slowly deflated but that didn’t stop us from crashing out.
30th July 1999: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Day 9 overall)
It wasn’t easy to get clean in our bathroom since there was only one temperature – cold – and the floor was covered in grit but what we could and got ready to explore Rio. We thought today we might try and get up Sugarloaf by climbing and then take the cable car back down. The guidebook said we would need rope for several sections but decided to see for ourselves.
The hotel receptionist said that the 511 would take us that way but after heading down to the beach road, we couldn’t find a bus stop anywhere. My attempts at Portuguese and trying to ask a few passers-by for help were met with blank looks which made me feel suddenly alone, not even being able to ask about a bus. I admit my Portuguese is very limited but I’m used to most people having a fair understanding of English, but this doesn’t seem to be the case here and I guess that is something I had taken for granted.
Finally, we managed to work it out and found a stop with 511 indicated where we thought we could get the bus. Our next challenge was the buses themselves – there were many buses coming and going all the time but there seemed to be few clues as to where they were heading. Again, people had to help give us some clues before we jumped on the right bus but the trial of taking a bus didn’t stop there when I couldn’t explain to the conductor where we wanted to go. “Pao de Acucar” is Portuguese for Sugarloaf Mountain but my version was met with blank looks in the end resorting to drawing it in the air and I had doubts that I could continue to use a bus in this manner if we ever wanted to go to somewhere more visually complicated! We paid 80 cents, received a tour around Rio as the bus took us on its twisting route and finally jumped out near the mountain.
The idea of a free climb up Sugarloaf was quickly dismissed as ridiculous as we could see the 400 meter rock was sheer on all sides so instead we headed to the cable car station to check out prices there. Before we got there, a man started talking to us about Corcovado (the hill with Christ on the top). With the help of one of his friends who spoke a little English, we worked out he was offering to drive us to the top of Corcovado with a couple of stops for R20 each. I tried bargaining a little, but he wasn’t having it and it did sound like a good deal. But then we had no comparison except London prices, so we didn’t know if we were getting a fair price for Rio or not. We eventually agreed thinking that if we were going to go up to one ‘high place’ to get a view, then Corcovado was definitely the best choice since it was much higher and would have better all-round views. Furthermore, we had read that although there was a train we could take to get up, it also cost R20 so without further ado – we set off.
Our driver was called Alindo and he was very friendly and gave a running commentary of the city as we went through. He also tried teaching us a few words in Portuguese but unfortunately without much success. The taxi wound its way up through twisting roads and the favelas that seemed to cling precariously to the steep slopes of the mountain. The little shacks and houses of the favelas were very basic mostly just one or two rooms made of brick and corrugated iron, but they some of them did have the most glorious views across the city.
About half way up, Alindo stopped a viewing platform where we were able to get out and take some pictures. In the trees around us were little squawking animals which looked like a cross between a squirrel and a monkey. The trees were hung with large fruits I don’t remember the name of and up above – large birds of prey were circling perhaps looking for smaller prey. The views were astounding. Behind us, the remaining 300 meter rocky face of the Corcovado mountain topped by the huge 30 meter high statue of Christ looking down upon us and across the city. All around, the city of Rio sprawled as far as the eye could see poured into the gaps between the sandy bays and the mountains behind. The flat areas contained street after street of variously styled apartment block and on the lower slopes of the hills, the housing became more ramshackle before then turning into the same type of favela we had passed through on the way up. Several large mountains punctuated the city like some giants had just come and sat down spread across city and the forest and favelas had grown over them. Even the beautiful sea had numerous islands that appeared in much the same fashion.
To the east we could just make out the long road bridge which connected some of the many islands in the large natural harbour area and through a grey smog, we could just make out the Macarena stadium towards the north. To the south, a large inland lake had a number of small boats whizzing around and beyond that we worked out lay the famous beaches of Flamegno, Leme, Copacabana, Arpoador, Ipenema and Leblon.
Alindo drove us higher up the mountain roads seeming to treat them like a race track. A number of blind bends beside steep cliffs didn’t put him off over taking any slower moving vehicles (which were most of them!). At the top was a small car par with a stressed looking policeman desperately trying to control the cars coming and going. After a lot of shouting and hooting from all sides without anyone really going anywhere, Alindo let us out whilst he continued to negotiate the traffic jam and we walked the rest of the way.
Here at the top and 710 meters above sea level, the view was even more complete and included the mountain ranges towards the north east. These mountains were protected in a National Park and the grey rocky faces were surrounded in a thick layer of dark green trees without any of the shanty towns between them. We enjoyed the view and took a few pictures before it was time to head back down.
We asked Alindo to drop us off in Leblon and from here we enjoyed a long stroll along the length of the famous beach front. Ipanema seemed exceptionally well off and the beach was filled with tanned and well-toned men and women working out, playing games or just strutting! The most common game by far was the beach foot volleyball we saw briefly yesterday, and the players all had great skill keeping the ball up in the air. We walked all the way back to Copacabana and bought some tuna, beans and bread for dinner adding a little chilli powder to make it more interesting. We also tried to find some iodine to purify tap water for drinking, but no one seemed to have heard of it so we just bought more bottled water. Mark expressed his concern about us being out-doors at night to which Jono and I agreed. Rio has many amazingly beautiful spots but in the back streets, it can seem rather seedy and dangerous very quickly. We haven’t felt safe in the backstreets even during the day but at night it seemed like we were asking for trouble.
Over our tuna and bean dinner – we discussed what to do next. We were anxious to start moving on, but we didn’t really know where. One option is to head to Belo Horizonte to take up the invite from the girls whom I had befriended on the plane but all of us seem to prefer the idea of staying by the coast. We didn’t come to a conclusion and agreed to put it off until tomorrow.
31st July 1999: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Day 10 overall)
It was raining which is was not what I had expected for Rio. It was not really rain but more a continuous fall of moisture since the air just seemed to be full of a fine mist. I had awoken first, and we wanted an early start but it was already 9am. We were strangely tired considering we had fallen asleep quite early two nights in a row, but I took a shower and repacked my bag yet again whilst the others got ready. I kept rejigging it to make it easier to get what I needed without having to empty everything each time.
Taking a walk to search for a place to get breakfast, Jono made friends with a Brazilian girl called Adriana who spoke good English and they were talking about ideas of where to go. Our latest plan was to head to Salvador and Ariana raved about the beaches. It’s a funny thing here – we noticed that no one says that something is “all right” or “not too bad” but uses more extreme language like it is “Amazing!” or “Absolutely horrible!”. In this case, Adriana made a series of “oohs” and “aahs” as she described the ‘paradise’ that was the beaches of Salvador. We thought Salvador might be quite a big hop (about 24 hours up the coast in a bus) however we were coming to realise that Brazil is a different scale entirely to England and if we were every going to make progress on circumnavigating the continent, we would have to get used to these distances and that it would be nicer to do fewer areas in more detail as opposed to skim through lots of places.
We ate the chunky bread and Nutella we had picked up for breakfast and discussed how we had found the first couple of days in South America. I think we are all in a mild stage of questioning why we’re doing this as the reality of budget travel in a foreign and unusual country was beginning to kick in. We looked at the room we were staying in and at the rather basic food we were eating and even Rio was not quite the paradise we had dreamed of from the comfort of our homes in Richmond-upon-Thames. We felt always on-guard and not able to relax which limited our enjoyment of some of the experiences. I knew not to read too much into these feelings – that we were in that state of limbo that can occur on such trips where you have got over the initial enjoyment of being somewhere different – but that we hadn’t yet learnt the local customs making every little thing a lot harder so we hadn’t reached the stage of just enjoying it.
Adriana, who had joined us for breakfast, said she was heading to the Rodovaria (bus station) to continue her own travels around Brazil and suggested we all share a taxi. We much appreciated this since we didn’t have a clue how to get there and thought we would probably be ripped off as well, so we all headed off in a taxi.
As we journeyed through the city, I noticed some street children running towards the car shouting something and laughing. The taxi man immediately locked all the doors and said they were shouting “Gringos” which is slang for foreigner and the street children were not to be trusted at all. We arrived at the bus station and felt all eyes on us and on our packs and we were grateful for Adriana’s help in finding a bus. Most of the buses to Salvador were full but Adriana was able to talk to operators and we eventually found a bus that had some spare seats. The tickets cost about £35 but this was a lot cheaper than the flying alternative albeit a lot longer with an estimated 25 hours journey time and besides, we wanted to do this trip ‘at ground level’ to experience the adventure of the journey and hopefully see more of the countryside.
The bus wouldn’t be leaving until the evening, so Adriana suggested we take a local bus to a trendy suburb of Rio called Barra de Tjuca. The ride took us about an hour, but it was interesting taking us through the Tjuca National Park and more areas of Rio we hadn’t yet seen.
I’ve been trying to think of words to help me describe what we see since I don’t think I am doing it all justice. Everything is so different from what we are used to and so it is all fascinating, but it is difficult to put all these little differences into text. The colour of the trees is a much darker green and the leaves are much larger and thicker, and they cling everywhere along the lower slopes of the hills. The hills themselves are like vast granite boulders half submerged and quite alien to anything we might see in England. It had been raining today so their bare grey rock surfaces were shiny and small waterfalls cascaded down from the higher reaches. The houses in the suburbs close to the national park looked quite run-down on the outside but that seems to be the norm and Adriana told us that these were actually quite exclusive places to live.
The bus wound up a hill in the national park until it reached a pass from where the area of Barra de Tjuca spread out before us. The town was covered in a deep, sea-green mist and the sea itself looked bleak. The bus dropped us off near the beach and we took a walk along the rather wet sea front before stopping in a cafe for a hamburger and some battered chicken balls for a late lunch / early dinner. Mark pointed out that the sauce that came out of the ketchup bottle was grey, but Adriana seemed to show no surprise at this. We wandered what made it grey and eventually decided that it had probably gone mouldy and the cafe owner had decided just to mix it all together!
After an espresso to rid ourselves of the taste of mouldy ketchup, it was time to head back to the Rodovaria as it had gone 5pm and was already getting dark. We had got to know Adriana more today. She lived in Sao Paulo and worked in exports which is where she had learned her English. Adriana was short and had pale skin and a long tumble of blonde hair and although had bouts of seriousness, she was generally good fun to be with and it was interesting to hear more first-hand about the Brazilian way of life. We even picked up a few more words in Portuguese which is proving a very tricky language to get the sounds right even when we think we know the words!
We said our goodbyes to Adriana, thanking her for all her help and wishing her well on her journey and it was time to board and make the first step in our long journey. I estimated we would cover about 20,000 miles around South America which meant about 500 hours on buses, trains and boats. The first bus in our journey was quite basic but the seats reclined which would make it more comfortable for sleeping and we would have to get used to this way of travelling.
The journey out of Rio was very pretty with bright lines piercing the pitch black of night coming from the streets around us but also up on the mountains which were themselves invisible in the dark. On some occasions, the lights came from below which meant we were driving on the side of a hill but we could have been anywhere. As we left the last suburbs of the sprawling city, we entered a countryside that almost unending in its darkness with very few lights other those from other vehicles. I tied my thermo-fleece into a ball to use as a pillow and drifted off to sleep.