I am sorry for every bad word I ever said about you, Rio. After serving as a volunteer for the Chicago 2016 Olympic bid, I started to say your name like Newman says “Jerry” on episodes of Seinfeld…with a look of disdain and hatred in my voice. I couldn’t imagine how any group of people could prefer any city to my hometown. We have beaches and beautiful architecture. Our neighborhoods and cultural spots are superior to every place I have visited in the world. I am proud of Chicago and was just plain mad at you for stealing our chance to share our city on the world stage.
Then, I arrived in Rio. I wanted to get in and out of this place with just a short opportunity to confirm my suspicions that it would be dirty and unsafe…guns and drugs surrounded by graffiti and gang members. Police would be taking bribes on the street and there would be lascivious behavior everywhere I looked. I had my first glimpse as the taxi took me to my AirBnb condo down the street from Copacabana Beach…it was 3:00 am, yet the city seemed to have a fresh, lively energy. Surely, it would look different by the light of day. I woke up the next morning, not too early, I must admit, because I was prepared to be unimpressed and that AirBnb bed almost felt like home. I made it out the door and started wandering toward the beach thinking about a possible visit to see the Christ the Redeemer statue that has often been the cinematic emblem for Rio and is listed as one of the wonders of the world. First thing I noticed was that everyone is pretty beautiful…I mean, okay, really gorgeous. The women and men have amazing skin, hair, and features and I saw a lot of big smiles along the beachfront. I was feeling a bit gawky as I walked along the beach and it was striking to me that not only are the people beautiful, but in all shapes and sizes, they seem to rock a serious body confidence. Bikinis and speedos are everywhere and people just seem really comfortable with themselves. (I have to say, speedos barely belong on a beach, but it was a bit awkward to pass men walking of the beach area in them, but I give them credit for their bold confidence.) The next thing I saw was the truly beautiful collision of urban and natural landscapes. The mountains are forests surrounding the beaches offered exceptional views wherever I looked.
To my fellow Chicagoans, I swear, I tried to look at this city with a critical eye and it was impossible to find anything not to like. Darn! The people were friendly, it was about 95 degrees and sunny the whole time I was there, and the bright, colorful artwork around the city just made me feel good inside.
As I discovered treasure after treasure around every corner, I couldn’t help but giggle remembering the day the Olympic committee came to Chicago for their official tour. I think it was January or February. I volunteered as a greeter and security (obvious pause for a laugh at the image of me as a security person) at the hotel where they were staying. I remember that I walked downtown on that frigid morning battling sleet and strong winds to get to the hotel. It rained the entire day of their tour and the skies were gray and depressing. For a new visitor, it might seem impossible to imagine this gloomy city- filled with cranky winter moods-hosting a big event. Now, I imagine that their next stop was Rio. They likely walked off the plane to feel the sunshine on their faces and were surrounded by happy, beautiful people enjoying the height of summer. Yeah, I love Chicago number one, and always will, but keeping those two glimpses in mind, I might have picked Rio, too.
I also notice that this city seems to be ready for the events coming their way…World Cup, American Cup, and 2016 Summer Olympics. When I visited China and Greece in the years before they hosted, there was a chaotic feeling in the air with construction on every road and new construction going up everywhere. To me, Rio feels ready….filled with hotels, stadiums and people who are anxious to party. I did read an article on the plane that they recently fired over 30 police officers accused of corruption and will continue to work on making guests feels safe here. I must admit, my days were busy and time flew by, so I saw the best of Rio.
On my first day, I went on a six hour city tour that took me to all of the big sights. We visited Christ the Redeemer, Saint Sebastian Cathedral, the main Carnivale area, and the top of Sugar Loaf mountain via cable car. On day two, I spent the morning at Copacabana Beach (ouch…the sun was really hot and I burned up a bit in that short hour). I went on an afternoon tour of a local favela. If you have seen the movie “City of God,” favelas seem like the scariest places in the world. Favelas are slum areas in urban Brazilian areas and interesting places filled with unique culture and history. I read a few articles on the ethics of visiting poor communities throughout the world as a form of tourism and wasn’t sure how my visit would feel. It is a bit of a controversial issue with critics saying that it is taking advantage of people. Others say that it brings attention to the areas and that it is helpful to find tour companies that give money back to develop infrastructure and support systems. The visit was interesting because in lieu of having specific government oversight and leadership, people have developed their own systems. Parts of the favela were very nice and most people took care of the area they had. The tour company supported a daycare center and people can go there to volunteer. That seemed like something valuable to do. Hmmm!
My time in Rio was short, but I am okay with that. I would like to come back someday. This is a place that would be more fun with a partner or group of friends. I would feel more comfortable and excited about exploring the nightlife and dancing scene with my people.
The only downside to Rio is that it is so expensive. Everything cost much more than I want to spend. Restaurant prices are crazy and even my standard can of tuna cost three times more than any other place I have visited. Of course, I was near the beach in the summer, so I should have expected it, but wow….I am longing for Central American prices again.
On a side note…I just got used to speaking Spanish and now, I keep forgetting that people here do not speak Spanish as much as Portuguese, so my fractured Spanish and English mix is not too effective. I am a communication mess, so this is the quietest I have been in weeks.
I am heading to Iguazu Falls tomorrow….one of the seven wonders of the world and supposed to be amazing! All ready to get wet exploring and hiking.