a good day in rio consists of a cultural activity in the morning -- such as visiting the museu da republica (which, in the well-preserved bedroom where the self-inflicted shot was fired, one can find the gun, bullet, and last testimony of the beloved dictator/president vargas); copacabana; sugar loaf mountain (offering a very nice hike through forest vegetation and a stunning view of the city); the museu nacional de belas artes (containing a decent collection of contemporary brazilian art); ipanema; santa teresa (a colorful quiet neighborhood in the hills); leblon; christ the redeemer (exuding a somewhat disney-esque touristy aura); the niteroi contemporary art museum (designed by oscar niemeyer, the vision behind futuristic brasilia); etc. -- and then spending the afternoon at the beach, where one can rinse off the sweat produced during the strenuous morning hours (and there was plenty -- i'd guess the average temperature during our stay was a humid 34 degrees).
the highlight of the city is the zona sul, in which are located the excellent beaches. we've been told that copacabana attracts the tourists and prostitutes, while ipanema and leblon draw a more local crowd -- but either way, the crowds do swarm, and every day each beach presents a panorama of red and yellow parasols providing umbrage for innumerable patrons. one rents an umbrella (especially important if one is a pasty gringo) for a few reals, and then one sits back and relaxes. the beach becomes a mall of sorts, with many hard-working vendors toiling under the sun, burdened with all varieties of food, drink, clothing, sunscreen, sunglasses, and other useful commodities. one can easily spend the entire day ensconced in a comfortable chair, stirring only periodically to jump in the ocean, which, when not flecked with refuse, is clear and inviting. (pollution is a bit of a problem in rio, and the situation is not helped by the shamelessness with which locals discard their garbage by simply tossing at their feet). the waves at copacabana are excellent, with crests up to six feet crashing consistently onto the shore, offering sublime opportunities for body surfing and extreme wipeouts. after a day at copacabana, i close my eyes and see giant waves rolling endlessly. there are so many people at the beach that within just a 10 meter radius there is enough going on to keep one well interested -- and then one takes a step back, meanders along the shore for a while, and realizes that the same bustle extends as far as the eye can see up and down the coast, which leads to an awe-inspiring sense of insignificance, much like when one ponders the vast scope of the universe. many were the hours i spent simply watching the people enjoy themselves, lost in the philosophic quandary of brazilian bathing suits: how skimpy can a thong be while still exhibiting (among other things) the essential qualities of a bikini? methinks plato would find the question quite stimulating.
many of our nights were spent in lapa, the hotspot for clubs and bars. friday and saturday nights are particularly big here, when cariocas from all over the city convene in the street to quaff beer and grab a snack before heading into one of the crowded discotheques. we were told that our first friday in lapa was the first of the season not dampened by rain, which helped explain the particularly large and exuberant crowd we encountered. that night, accompanied by a few girls from new york, we met some exceedingly friendly locals who showed us how to enjoy a live show without paying cover and then introduced us to the very cool club democratico, even managing to haggle the entrance fee down by half on account of the fact that it was already close to four when we arrived. another club worth mentioning is casa da matriz in botafogo, which draws a different crowd: a large constituency of young 'emo' kids who gather in the multi-floored club to get down to 80's american pop rock -- 'wedding music', as one regular aptly described it. somewhere between the clubbing and beach-bumming, amar tired of dealing with his hair -- washing, drying, arranging, etc. -- so he shaved it all off, and i, in need of a haircut myself and faced with the grim alternative of trying to explain the subtleties of my desired style in portuguese, followed suit.
it was with ambivalence that we decided to tour the favela rocinha: there's something upsetting about the notion of making a spectacle of poverty, which is what we worried the tour might do. it didn't take long, however, to realize that we were the real spectacle, as we paraded our way single-file down one of the main streets under the gaze of many slightly bemused locals (the street used to be wide enough to provide passage for cars, but the ever-encroaching development of homes has restricted the one-time thoroughfare to strictly pedestrian access now). like all things touristic, there was a tinge of inauthenticity to our afternoon in the favela -- we passed by five or six establishments providing everything from pastries to bracelets to paintings, all of which was obviously offered exclusively for our benefit -- but there was nothing inauthentic about the harrowing ride to the top of the mountain on the back of a 'speed moto' motorcycle taxi, piloted by a half-daring, half-reckless youth with a dangerous predilection for acrobatic maneuvering, which he employed to pass every other bike and bus on the crowded, laneless road -- potholes, oil slicks, oncoming traffic, and blind turns be damned.
of the of the seven million inhabitants of rio proper, about 20 percent live in favelas; the one we visited was home to 200,000 people. the favelas are run by drug lords, whose henchmen patrol the streets with guns, radios, and fireworks, used as an alarm to signal the approach of a police raid. inside the favelas one will find shops, cafes, bars, etc. -- the communities are typically quite self-sustaining, and some favela inhabitants rarely interact with the so-called outside world. the majority (around 55%), however, have jobs in the richer areas of rio, and make their way in and out of the claustrophobic accretions every day. the conditions are not as dire as one might imagine, but the atmosphere in the favela is not particularly pleasant, with sewage problems, a lack of running water in some buildings, and a general dearth of natural light and fresh air among the overcrowded alleys contributing to a less-than-healthy environment. nevertheless, a great many lives are lead in these neighborhoods, and the best thing about the tour (aside from the economic stimulation it provides the community) is the humanizing effect it has, populating the mind's abstract notion of the favela with faces and personalities and reaffirming the basic bonds we all share.