I knew I was going to love Rio de Janeiro, everybody knows they will love it just by its hot reputation. Leaving São Paulo behind I could feel the tingle starting at my feet and moving up my whole body with every mile of ocean passing beneath our aircraft. As if the pilot could feel my anticipation he did a loop around Christ the Redeemer and Sugar Loaf mountain and then swooped down real low, hovering above the glittering sea before making his way to the landing strip. Atta boy!
After what seemed like an age at customs we were finally on our way to our hotel. That first night I will never forget how special welcome drinks can be when you have the Copacabana Beach for a view.
Rio is very different to São Paulo. On the surface its the city’s obvious beauty that takes your breath away; the beach, the mountains, the climate. Taking a closer look its got more to do with the people of Rio or Cariocas. When South Africa won the bid for the 2010 soccer world cup we were eager to prove to the outside world just how wonderful, fantastic and friendly SA and its people are, catering to tourists’ every need. Brazil on the other hand has an attitude like, “well duh, of course we won!”. It’s slightly better in São Paulo but in Rio, hardly anyone, even in business , is bothering to learn English.
Speaking of business, no MBA excursion is worth its weight without the mandatory company visits. Our first morning we were invited to a lecture at Petrobras, Brazilian multinational and global leader in energy. This company is so serious it has its own university where students are educated in Petroleum Engineering and the building itself is made from certified wood, recycled products, low emission paint and is US Green Building certified. Apparently they only hire locals so if you are looking for a job with this giant but don’t have a Brazilian passport, don’t bother.
In the afternoon we had a tour of the famous Maracana stadium, the largest stadium in Brazil and South America. Now soccer is not really my thing but the guys in our group were practically drooling as we drove up to the stadium. Unfortunately it was under construction so we couldn’t get the full effect of it but at least I can say I know what it is to walk a day in Pele’s shoes.
Late that afternoon we roamed the streets of Ipanema before dinner. Ipanema is an area in the south of the city adjacent to Copacabana Beach and is one of the most expensive places to live in Rio. One of the best things to do, besides window shop, is to sit at a beachside café, beer in hand, and people-watch.
Our group took this a bit too far by cheering the runners and cyclists as they went by, particularly if they were of the female variety with exposed midriff. Beach culture is a huge part of life in Rio so the Cariocas work hard to maintain their physiques. In fact a Brazilian friend told me business in Rio only really gets going around 10am as Cariocas are accustomed to spending their mornings on the beach. Now that’s what I call good work-life balance!
The next day’s excursion has to go down as one of the best experiences of my life. We were visiting the Rocinha favela in South Rio. This favela is quite famous as it was used as a filming location for some scenes in the movie City of God which depicts life in Rio’s slums and is based on Paulo Lins’ book Cidade de Deus. In fact we were told that, until a recent police and military crackdown, the favela was too dangerous for tourists to enter.
The slums of Rio look quite different to those in South Africa. For one thing, the houses there are made of concrete and brick, a step up from the tin shacks of our townships. Also, many of them are three and four stories tall, have basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity. In fact Rocinha has its own bus lines, medicine stores, banks and even its own cable television channel called TV ROC plus the street art or graffiti is incredible!
We hooked up with a neighbourhood association so that we were not just visiting the favela as tourists but were there to do some cleanup work to improve conditions.
After a brief talk about the history of the favela and the work they were doing to clean it up, we were led up the steep concrete steps into the favela.
One thing this favela has is a spectacular view of both Sugar Loaf mountain in the sea below and Christ the Redeemer on the Corcovado above. It was a perfect day with a clear blue sky and that brimming excitement you feel when you know you are about to experience something totally different.
I loved that the first item on the agenda was lunch because I always work better on a full belly. The meal was standard Brazilian; rice with black beans, feijoada or meat stew, cooked veggies and fruit. We were also offered Batida to drink which is a mixture of cachaca (of course), coconut milk and sugar. It was good albeit a bit too strong for an afternoon of volunteer work.
After lunch the fun began in earnest with music, football and dancing. Some of the guys worked off their lunch with a game of soccer and the rest of us attempted dancing. I must admit that even though I am a professional dancer, I struggled to pick up the footwork of the Brazilians. I think it’s just a natural-born rhythm in their blood.
It wasn’t all fun and games that afternoon, we were there to do some real work and by real I mean dirty. We divided ourselves into two groups, lets call them soft and hard. The softies (including myself) spent the next few hours hand-painting street signs which we later hung ourselves to demarcate the various streets of the favela. The hardcore team, armed with brooms, brushes and trash cans, were let loose to do some serious street-sweeping. Their efforts proved slightly ineffectual given that there was a strong breeze that day so some of the rubbish brushed away was simply replaced by new rubbish but in the end it felt good to do something worthwhile with our time and leave a small piece of ourselves behind. Here are some of the street signs I painted.
And some more of the softies’ work…
All in all it was a perfect day. We had music, we had dancing, a blue sky, a cool breeze, great food and a sense of satisfaction from doing something good for others. Here is a little video I made capturing the afternoon atmosphere.
Now I am sure the other MBA groups in other countries had fun but we snagged the two best lecturers as our chaperones for the Brazil elective, proof of this was in the next day’s trip to the Bohemia Brewery included in our itinerary. Cervejaria Bohemia is nestled in Petropolis, a winter holiday spot offering a cooler climate, forest hills, a charming urban landscape and the former Summer Palace of the second Brazilian emperor.
The Bohemia brand claims to be the first Brazilian beer with production starting in 1853 so the brewery tour itself delves deep into the history and culture of beer brewing in a high-tech experience unlike any you have ever had. The tour is divided into parts, the first being history of beer from as far back as Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt with interactive games and videos for the enthusiasts. Next you explore several different rooms covering the main ingredients in the perfect brew – water, hops, malt and yeast and then watch as floating holograms bring the beer making process to life. Finally with your thirst sufficiently whetted you get to taste the golden talisman straight from the barrel.
Our last day in Rio was spent sight-seeing and beaching. We all climbed into jeeps and made our round-a-bout way up the mountains toward the Tijuca Forest. Hand-planted and nestled in the city, the national park is home to thousands of plant and wildlife species as well as the Mata Macado favela. Despite the car sickness I always suffer from twisty-turny ascents, the views of the lush vegetation and Sugar Loaf were spectacular.
Unfortunately the journey took longer than anticipated and most of the group elected to go back to the hotel but a few of us diehards soldiered on to the main event – Christ the Redeemer! As far as I am concerned visiting Rio and not seeing this landmark is the equivalent of going to Beijing without climbing the Great Wall of China or Paris without the Eiffel Tower. Christo Redentor stands at almost 40 meters high atop the Corcovado mountain and is considered the largest Art Deco statue in the world. After a 30 minute wait in the queue we were squeezed into the tram which ascends to the peak in about 15 minutes.
Once on top it’s just 220 steps to reach the imposing statue surrounded by shoulder-to-shoulder crowds all clambering to get that perfect shot of both the statue and the spectacular views of the city.
This symbol of Brazilian Christianity is even more imposing up close in the sweltering Rio heat.
The height of the statue and small surrounding crowd area make it difficult to get yourself and the statue in the same photo. For this reason you will see tourists lying on the floor, shooting upwards and getting their models to imitate Jesus’ outstretched pose. Of course, I couldn’t resist my own kitschy shot…
The heat up there was so intense I was glad for the nearby café that sold water. Other facilities included a curio shop where you can buy T-shirts, postcards and other knickknacks but beware, some pictures have been photoshopped so that the statue faces away from Sugar Loaf instead of towards it!
Once the excitement of seeing the landmark is over, the 45 minute queue for the tram ride back down is a bit of a bore but the local samba players inside the carriage make up for it!
Finally back from the clouds we at last had a chance to go to the beach. The Copacabana beach is world-famous. It’s featured in songs, movies and music videos and you are guaranteed an eyeful of beefy bronzed bodies (not our group’s, clearly).
The hazy weather meant the beach was not over crowded and perfect for a leisurely stroll and a game of soccer or beach volleyball.
Although we were in Rio in October, the best weather and time of year to visit is in February for carnival. If you are interested in shaking what your mamma gave ya, check out my post Right in the Rio Carnival.
Sadly my time in Rio came to an end. As expected, the short trip was undoubtedly one of my best. Rio is not just beauties and beaches, it’s an energy, a pulse that the Cariocas seem to carry around with them. They have a way about them, a certain arrogance that comes from living in a city whose saucy reputation precedes it. Not only do the people of Rio love their city, they take it for granted that you will too and of course, they are right… life really is a beach in Rio!!
((Keep an eye open for my next post about what we got up to in Rio when the sun went down…))