• 25 . 06 . 11
  • In which a day of endless queueing and crowds is redeemed by samba singing and street parties.

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Redeeming Features

Yeah, we were mugged on our second day here, but it wasn’t so bad – I mean, they had a knife, but it wasn’t terrible or anything!
That’s awful! Where did it happen?
Um, it was a place in the middle of town, Lapa, I think?

This is not the conversation you want to be having with a fellow traveller when you are carrying expensive camera equipment and about to catch a bus back to your hostel. In Lapa. At night.

It was Christ the Redeemer’s fault really. The iconic statue and symbol of Rio, overlooking the city from on high, is a major tourist attraction and busy most days of the year. Unfortunately, we had inadvertently chosen to visit the day after Corpus Christi, a public holiday in this Catholic country. In retrospect, I can see why visiting Christ the Redeemer then would be obvious for the flock, but not being plugged into the Catholic social calendar, we had no idea.

The first clue was that upon arrival to the train station at 3pm, the next train with availability was at 7:20pm, well after sunset. Opting instead for a mini-bus that promised to take us up there and then, we made good progress and got two thirds of the way up the mountain in just 15 minutes. What they don’t tell you upfront is that you are one of many, very many people doing the same thing. About 500m from what looked like a ticket office, we saw the end of a queue to get into a second set of mini buses to take us the rest of the way, 15 people at a time. There were easily a thousand people waiting in front of us. Fortunately, the queue was so long that it dawned on us that we had to buy the tickets from yet another queue before we got to the head of this one. Now, I don’t mind queueing – I’m British after all, and everyone knows we’re second only to the Russians in our love/hate for long lines – but, they really could use a bit of signage up there. It was only sheer dumb luck that we joined the right queues in the right order, otherwise we could have been standing around far longer than the hour we ended up waiting.

At the top, it was thronged, to the point where it was difficult to move, never mind the occasional muppet that would be lying down on the floor trying to take what looked like an upskirt photo of Our Lord. Seriously, if you want a photo looking upwards at Christ the Redeemer from an acute angle, there’s an entire city to do it from. There was barely enough room for anybody to do the pose mimicking the statue’s, but they were all trying. So very trying. Once you threw in the helicopters that buzzed around every 5 minutes like incessant hornets – I can now understand King Kong’s frustrations – it was hardly the place for peaceful reflection.

It makes me more and more impressed with the traffic management at places in Spain like Dali’s House Museum and the Alhambra, both of which were busy but never felt rushed or crowded. The Brazilians could probably do with taking a leaf out of the Spaniards’ book.

In fact the only redeeming feature was the the view of the harbour, which was phenomenal. Serendipitously we were there as the sun began to set, which made the haze above the city glow. Once we were able to make it to the edge of the plaza, the shoving stopped and the sounds around seemed to fade away. For a couple of minutes it was possible to just look down at the city and admire, at least until I felt obliged to give up the position to another poor crushed punter.

What goes up must come down and predictably enough there were major queues for the mini-buses to descend, followed by another major queue for the second mini-bus from the ticket office, by which time it was very dark. We struck up a conversation with some Australians and were told of their mugging just as we said goodbye and went to stand under a flickering lamppost to wait for our bus back to that same district. If you want to induce paranoia, that is how to do it.

After spending three days in the comparatively comfortable suburb of Ipanema, just a stone’s throw from both the beach and the restaurant that lends its name to possibly the world’s most famous Bossa Nova tune, Lapa is a decidedly more… colourful neighbourhood. Already earmarked by all the guides as being one of the least safe areas, the Aussies’ story of being mugged didn’t help with first impressions. The second person we spoke to in our hostel told us of an ominous chalk outline and police tape they’d seen just down the road below a conspicuously large bridge.

But for all that we were briefly scared on the short walk back to the hostel from the bus stop, it doesn’t encompass the whole feel of the place. It’s true that we left our watches, passports, jewellery and wallets in our room when we went out last night, but that’s just good common sense in an area where you shouldn’t be surprised to find a Favela kid’s hand in your pocket. This does feel more authentically Rio than the lovely, but slightly sterile Ipanema. You get to use all those adjectives that The Guardian loves to use to describe The Wire. Gritty. Edgy. Urban. There is a gritty, urban edginess about the place, and a nightlife to make you sing, or at least listen and dance.

The road next to ours was blocked off last night for a street party and there was live music spilling out of the bars and restaurants, bouncy castles for the kids and a crowd of people laughing and chatting all night long. A live jazz band was playing on the corner of the road. We ended up in a great samba club called Carioca da Gema with a bunch of fellow travellers and danced to a live band and a very soulful singer. A local woman did her best to teach me some dance moves and collapsed in laughter at my efforts. Because we’d left our watches, we had no idea of the time and ended up staying out much later than we’d planned, but it didn’t matter. Walking back along the same roads as just a few hours earlier felt much safer; proof that context and perception is everything. Or maybe just that alcohol makes the world seem shinier.

Not feeling too shiny this morning though. Sheeeeeeeet.

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