Going down to Rio

GRANT SHIMMIN
Last updated 05:00 15/06/2014

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The whole, crowded dancefloor seemed to be moving as a single entity, as though we'd happened upon a creature unique to Brazil, and rarely seen by tourists. A creature with rhythm in its genes.

Even as we eased our way into the gyrating throng, there seemed no clear path into the Carioca da Gema's interior. Somehow, though, a route opened up, if only momentarily, as we eased our way, cautiously, across the floor.

The crowd was no surprise; the band was in full cry, the beat occasionally hinting at the African influences that pervade much of Brazilian life, and the samba sound generated by the six-piece ensemble, the composition of which reflected those influences, was infectious. Even if we didn't understand the lyrics, except when they suddenly broke into a samba version of I Shot the Sheriff.

This club hadn't been our intended destination. We'd come on the advice of a local, having started out, with our guide, a block or two away at the Rio Scenarium.

We were in Lapa, part of Rio's "Historic Downtown", as the tourist maps have it, a neighbourhood known both for its culture and nightlife. Given the time of day, it was the latter we'd come to pursue.

The three-storey Rio Scenarium is, in a sense, a meeting point of culture and nightlife. It started out as an antique shop, and abundant evidence of that former incarnation covers its walls, but it's now a samba club, celebrating a music and dance movement that had its working class origins just a little further into the downtown area, close to Rio's impressive port.

The club is structured so the locals who stream in by the hundreds, filling its floors from the ground up, can see the bands performing on the ground floor from the floors above. We went on Easter Sunday, so workers had the Monday to recover.

I say locals specifically, as there was precious little evidence of other overseas visitors having left the beachfront tourist havens of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon to venture into Lapa. We may not have deserted the traditional haunts either, but for the itinerary worked out by travel company Adventure World with our Rio hosts. Happily, though, we'd discovered the locals' party destination.

The absence of tourists was emphasised when one of our group observed, on our way out: "It's nice to be able to say whatever you like and not have to worry about people hearing you."

"It's nice to hear English," we heard a strong American accent reply. Its owner, in Rio on honeymoon, had noticed it too.

The situation was mirrored at Carioca da Gema, one of the founding clubs of this party district, which opened in 2000, though our welcome could hardly have been warmer.

What wasn't reproduced was the hint of formality lent to our first stop by the nature of its premises. Here patrons sat on a staircase to hear the band, or mingled comfortably on the dancefloor, despite the regular requirement to briefly rein in their gyrations to allow passage to those crossing to the bar.

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Sometimes, waiters needed to pick their way through the throng to deliver orders. Several times we watched, nervously, as one diminutive server inched past into the fray. To many patrons, all that would have been visible of him was his arm held aloft, a tray perched precariously on his outstretched fingers. But despite our concern, his cargo always got through safely, as it did when I approached the bar to order a round.

Before I arrived, the waiter appeared in front of me, pointing at the beer bottle in my hand. I raised three fingers, following up with two more when he pointed inquiringly to one of the women in the group he'd served earlier. An unspoken understanding. No common language, precious little room to move, no problem. What a place.

The welcome, the atmosphere, the service, the music. A Sunday night like no other, in a place more tourists should visit.

They probably will, in truth, from this month, with the world's two biggest sporting events coming to town.

Football's World Cup kicked off on Friday and several games, including the final, are to be played in Rio's revamped Maracana Stadium, in the shadow of the Corcovado Hill, and the statue of Christ the Redeemer.

Rio is just one of 12 host cities for the tournament, but in two years, it will be the epicentre of global attention when the Olympic Games take place there.

It will be a uniquely Rio event. For example, the city's "Sambadrome", a stretch of road running several kilometres and flanked by grandstands, which is used for its annual Carnival, will be the venue for the archery events. It's long and straight, so it makes perfect sense, really.

And the historic downtown area looks set to play a starring role, if not as a competition venue, then as an attraction for the thousands of Olympic tourists, by day or night.

The morning before we visited Lapa, our first time in the city that was Brazil's second capital after Portuguese colonisation, I'd flicked on my TV and happened on live coverage of the implosion of an elevated highway near the port.

"It's the mayor. He doesn't like it," our guide, Patricia Silva, told me later, her response suggesting that she also thought it a strange thing to be happening less than two months from a World Cup. But the city's popular 44-year-old mayor, Eduardo Paes, seen as having a good chance of stepping up to the governorship of Rio de Janeiro state, is clearly serious about plans to revitalise the downtown area, and 2016 is the target so a World Cup wasn't about to hold him up.

As we headed to our hotel on arrival in Rio, we passed a smart new bridge that presently joins nothing to nothing.

"That's for 2016. Lucky!" Patricia observed with a smile.

The downtown area is undergoing its biggest renovation since 1906, a project at least a decade in the planning.

The idea behind the Porto Maravilha Urban Operation is "to restore the region's urban infrastructure, transportation, environment, and historical and cultural heritage" according to a brochure on the development released by the Rio Prefecture.

There are many aspects to the project. Transport infrastructure is a big component, with six new tunnels, six light-rail train lines and four new bus routes, one of which is already open, on the agenda. The 28km, 42-station light-rail network will carry up to 250,000 passengers a day, including, no doubt, many Olympic visitors.

But there's also beautification taking place. Rio has a strong urban art movement and its most prominent exponents have been given designated areas where they can paint. Art is also being celebrated in more formal settings, such as the stunning Rio Museum of Art, on the harbourside at Praca Maua. It's worth a visit as much for its architecture as the artworks inside.

There's restoration too, following excavation. The long history of slavery in Brazil - some 4 million slaves were brought from Africa over more than 300 years, before slavery was finally abolished in 1888 - is a sore point, but it's a piece of history not being ignored in downtown Rio.

Instead, the long-covered site of the Valongo Wharf, built in 1811, where an estimated 500,000 slaves from Angola and Congo were landed, has been rediscovered as a result of the Porto Maravilha project. It is "now part of an open, protected monument, meeting a longstanding demand of the Black Movement", a sign at the site informs visitors.

It's all a far cry from the traditional tourist landmarks of Rio, which I'd visited on a short private trip 20 years earlier, and which appeared little changed. The beaches - Copacabana and Ipanema, studded with football goals, volleyball nets and often overexposed, though never topless, bodies - are two of the best-known stretches of soft white sand on the planet, and justifiably so.

The summit of the Sugar Loaf, reached by cable car, the majestic statue of Christ, arms outstretched, drawing the city in, both with spectacular wraparound views, are tourist magnets.

"Have you been to see Jesus yet?" the son of one of our party asked him most days via email. He and I finally got there on our last morning and it was every bit as awe-inspiring as my first time two decades earlier.

But there's much more: the Tijuca Forest, the world's largest urban forest, stunning hillside suburbs like Santa Teresa, Botafogo Beach, within the shelter of majestic Guanabara Bay.

And then there are the places we've all heard about in the build-up to the World Cup, where the many less fortunate in this city of 7 million live, the famous favelas. Visiting one of those was something I couldn't have done 20 years earlier.

Hillside slums as tourist attractions? Hard to believe, I know, particularly given the existence of dangerous and violent drug gangs. But it's a glimpse, and only that, under the glitzy, festive, sun-drenched skin of this remarkable place, an exercise in perspective.

It's a glimpse because, of course, no tour company is about to ferry its clients into areas where they might be in danger.

In the build-up to the World Cup, going back to 2008, many of Rio's favelas have undergone a process of "pacification", becoming home to police pacifying units (UPP). As our guide explained, the pacification process involves police letting occupants know the date they'll be arriving, giving unsavoury elements the chance to leave peacefully. Which naturally prompts criticism that the problem's simply being moved on, though in March and April the army was sent into some favelas in response to gang attacks on the police units.

Nevertheless, our six-strong group experienced no hint of concern on our guided trip into the pacified Vidigal favela, aside from our driver's chagrin at delays caused by the narrowness of the streets.

It was clear that in Vidigal, slum is probably not an appropriate term anymore. There was more than a hint of pride evident from the locals, especially long-time resident Mauro Quintanilla, who has been central to a project to turn the local rubbish dump into a garden, using discarded items like tyres and bottles. It felt like this was truly home.

We made the surprising discovery, at the end of our tour, that there are now accommodation establishments and restaurants in the favelas. As we enjoyed a traditional caipirinha - the local cocktail made from rum, lime juice and sugar - at one such establishment, we were delighted by the enjoyment of numerous local children flying homemade kites from surrounding dwellings.

The view from where we sat, though, was a stark illustration of Rio's contrasts. In front of us, in shadow, a shanty-covered hillside; a little further off, still basking in sunshine, the tourist playground of Ipanema.

As I said, just a glimpse under Rio's carnival attire. One of our guides, Rafael, informed us as we left Vidigal that it wasn't really a true picture of life for the city's disadvantaged.

"If you go past the Estadio do Maracana," he said, pointing off in the direction of the venue where the World Cup winners will soon be crowned, "that is reality Rio".

We hadn't seen that reality, but it was a sobering thought to carry back to the five-star Windsor Atlantica, with its views down the Copacabana, the numerous lanes of Avenida Atlantica running parallel to it, and, looking inland, of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched.

Perspective indeed, on a tourist paradise.

FACT FILE

LAN Airlines operates seven non-stop flights each week from Auckland to Santiago, Chile, with onward connections to Rio de Janeiro with TAM Airlines.

For more information or to make a booking contact travel agents, call LAN reservations on 0800 451 373, or visit lan.com.

Adventure World's Highlights of Brazil tour is priced from NZ$3509 per person. The 11-day independent tour includes accommodation in Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu, Manaus, Salvador and a 3-night Amazon cruise, sightseeing and many meals. For more information, see adventureworld.co.nz or call 0800 238 368.

- The writer travelled to Brazil as a guest of LAN Airlines and TAM Airlines, and Adventure World.

- Sunday Star Times

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