Journal 23 - March 26, 2003

Rio » Go Back

Journal 23
The last two weeks of my peregrination have been a steamy, sweaty blur of juice smoothies, beaches, discos, dancing, a huge Jesus, Acai and lots of sleep. Rio de Janeiro dances to the beat of its own loud drum. Packed into the narrow space between Rio's beautiful beaches and the dramatically steep mountains that lay behind, the city is a non-stop buzz created by the passionate life lived by the cariocas, as the residents of Rio are affectionately known.

With nowhere else to go, the buildings of Rio are forced skyward as soon as the beach ends and solid ground begins. The tall structures start across the street from the beach, and from there stretch for miles in every direction. The skyscrapers wind their way along Rio's irregularly shaped coast and partly up the nearby hills. Packed into the buildings and streets of Rio, and spreading up the hills into the valleys beyond are approximately ten million cariocas. From the posh apartment buildings on the beaches in Ipanema and Leblon, to the Favela (shanty) neighborhoods in the hills, this city is packed to the rim.

Strong and unreasonable at times, the passion of Brazilians is visible in every aspect of their lives, from dancing to futbol, sucos to surfing; they are passionate about everything they do. One of the things they are most passionate about is futbol, as I was fortunate to witness during two games I saw in historic Maracana stadium, South America's largest stadium. First I saw the classic match known as 'Fla-Flu,' a great playoff between Fluminense and Flamengo, Rio's two biggest rivals and most popular teams. The stadium was less than half full, but the crowd was louder than any sold-out 49ers game I've been to. For more than an hour before the game started the crowd chanted, sang, jumped, danced, clapped and cheered for their teams. Like a giant student section that would make any tortilla throwing Gaucho proud, the whole stadium rocked during the entire game. Ultimately Fluminense came away with a surprise victory, defeating favorite Flamengo 4-0.

Nense's victory in the semi-finals set the stage for a rowdy final the following week. The Championship of Rio, Fluminense vs. Vasco da Gama, one of Rio's most hated teams against one of its most loved. Vasco are the Oakland Raiders of Rio futbol, and the fans can be likened to anything you'll find in Oakland Stadium's Black Hole. For my money I'd take ten Vasco fans against ten Raider fans any day. These guys were scary. The stadium was almost sold out for the final, approximately eighty thousand loco futbol fans rocking the decrepit stadium to a frightening pitch. Only towards the end of the game did my friend tell me that ten years ago an entire section of the upper deck collapsed during a game, killing scores of people. But for this match the stadium was filled with flags, banners, fireworks and tens of thousands of screaming fans roaring like several 747 airplanes. Back-and-forth from one side of the stadium to the other in synchronized chants the fans roared at deafening levels. What exactly they chanted to each other I don't know (still working on the Portuguese), but after attempting to describe the 'HERE WE GO GIANTS, HERE WEGO!' chant of our games in the U.S., my friend responded by saying, "You guys are so polite."

Fluminense needed a two goal victory due to the points standings, so there was a sense of urgency as the game started, and tension rose as Vasco scored the first goal. Vasco's side of the stadium went crazy, it shook like a 6.7 on the Richter scale. Fluminense came back with a beautiful goal of their own, but Unlike the Raiders in the Super Bowl, Vasco was able to persevere, pulling away in the second half and dashing Nese's hopes with a late goal. Complete with mid-game riot that included the team's coaches throwing blows at center field; it was a classic Brazilian futbol match. Towards the end of the match my friend was getting nervous and wanted to leave. Imagine the damage Raider Nation would have done if they had won the Super Bowl, well my friend was nervous about what the Vasco fans would do after their victory. And I was nervous too, I happened to be wearing a shirt that was exactly the same color as the road jersey of Fluminense. We exited quickly and caught a bus out of the neighborhood. A brilliant experience.

The game was definitely among the highlights of my time in Rio, and I'll have to add it to the list of top attractions in South America. Thankfully the season isn't over as the Champion of Rio will go on to play the champions of Brazil's other states to determine an overall winner. It should be fun trying to follow the action and see a few more games over the following weeks.

While here I managed to do several other touristy things as well. The infamous Cristo Redentor, or Christ Redeemer and his omniscient gaze over the city, Pao do Acucar, or Sugar Loaf Mountain and its views over the city at sunset. The beaches, famous Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon. The city itself is incredibly vibrant, full of life and buzzing with energy. Juice bars populate every block, where you can pull up a chair and have an Acai, a tasty purple fruit from northern Brazil, frozen and blended into a think smoothie topped with granola and bananas, one of the first Portuguese words I learned. The juice bars offer almost any other fruit you can imagine too, freshly squeezed and blended to order, all for a whopping thirty cents.

Another thing I've been doing here in Rio is one of the most exhilarating things I've done so far on my trip. A ride on the public busses from Copacabana to Leblon and back again is like a roller-coaster ride without rails or a harness. For whatever reasons the bus drivers feel compelled to race around the streets at ridiculous speeds. Maybe they're just an extension of everyone else here in Rio? The same passion the futbol fans feel for Vasco as they bash an opponent's head in, the bus drivers feel as they strap-in behind that impossibly huge steering wheel. The rides become especially exciting after midnight, at which point motorists are no longer obligated to yield to traffic lights due to the danger of car-jackings and robberies. The really passionate bus drivers sign up for the graveyard shift, when they can race their busses around the city and scare the hell out of passengers and pedestrians alike. What their hurry is I'll never know, but it's clear the last thing they are concerned with is transporting passengers. It's as if they think driving faster will make their shift end sooner.

My last stop on the tourist check-list was the world-renowned HELP discoteque, where you pay to get in, and you pay more to go home. Apparently known worldwide by those who frequent such venues, I hadn't heard about the club until arriving in Rio, but in the spirit of seeing all things touristic, I had to make a stop. Like the Red Light district in Amsterdam, a trip to Rio would be incomplete without a visit to HELP. Despite showing up with a date, I couldn't help feeling like a sleaze-ball as I walked around the club, and my date's presence didn't stop the working girls from pinching, spanking and grabbing me to get my attention. And if I needed any more reason to be embarrassed about my country right now, many of the customers were American, although fortunately there were plenty of others dudes from around the world too. The club was a great place to dance though, the most space I've seen on a dance floor so far in Brazil. But obviously most of the men aren't there to dance. The scene overall was sad, both the men and women depressed me, but we did our best to have a good time, dance, and observe in morbid fascination.

After two slow and restful weeks in Rio it's time to get back on the road. Time to get out of the city and go see some nature. Today I'm off to Iguacu falls, reputedly one of the most impressive sites of natural beauty in the world.

Props to Michael Moore for saying what needed to be said on Sunday night.

Justin