Brazil | Rio de Janeiro: June 20 – June 23, 2008

Rio de Janeiro

June 21st, 2008

Got here yesterday morning. It was a long bus ride from the airport to Copacabana (where we booked our hostel). The taxi may have made it here faster, but we didn’t feel like paying R$80 when we had the option of paying R$6.50 each by bus. The bus went through the city, and we got to see quite a bit along the way. Rio is a very hilly place, surrounded by many jagged mountainous outcrops, including the famous Sugar Loaf mountain. We could also make out the Christ the Redeemer statue on our bus ride. Our hostel turned out to be about a kilometre from the bus stop, and was quite hard to find. Exhausted, we ran quickly to the room for a nap. To our surprise, we didn’t get a room as we had expected – we actually got a full apartment! We napped, and decided to walk around and explore the area. Walking through the busy streets we found their metro station, which we will be using the next couple of days. We stopped off to have some food, and some fresh juice. Mmmmm…the mango, and the banana!! We are planning to have a glass everyday! It reminded us of our fresh juice experience in the Hyatt in Cairo; except here it was only fraction of the cost, and tasted even fresher!

Walked along the main street, and reached the beach (1 km away). It was quiet, as after the sun goes down (6 pm – coz it’s their winter now), only the sports fanatics stick around to play their sport of choice (mostly volleyball). There were quite a few joggers, dog walkers, and couples hanging out.

We tested the Atlantic with our feet, and got a bit more wet than planned when a strong wave surprised us and reached our knees. We decided to come back during the day, and head back looking for a phone chip and some groceries. Realizing that we should have listened to mom when she told us to pack a couple of plates and cups, we bought some here. After making the necessary purchases, we decided to head back and have dinner at the apartment. We don’t feel too hungry here for some reason. Perhaps its the heat, and the water that fills us up. Or perhaps we just ate out of comfort back home. Anyway, the cheese flavoured Maggie noodles tasted funky, and the coconut flavoured yogurt (yogurts are quite runny here) was okay. Today, we stayed in as we were getting a little rundown from all the place-to-place hopping and also needed to catch up on our work. Tonight, we plan to cook some simple pasta and wind down with a movie. Our Italian seasoning should come in handy!

June 22nd, 2008

Today, we set off to visit Rio’s two most famous landmarks – the Sugar Loaf Mountain (Pao de Acucar) and the Christ the Redeemer statue atop Corcovado Mountain. As luck would have it, it had been raining all day and the sky was overcast, so when we got to the base of Corcovado, some tour guide (trying to rip us off as usual) advised us that we wouldn’t be able to see anything. Still, he was kind enough to offer taking us to the top by car (which didn’t make much sense, given the obscurity of the view). So, we asked the information desk at the Statue’s entrance what indeed we could do in the city that day, it being Sunday. With the little English he knew, he said the city’s museums and churches would still be open. Not really being into museums but pretending to be, we got the bus route information to take us into the city centre. Along the way, we saw many pretty streets with open markets and activity that got our confidence up. However, as the bus reached downtown (Centro), things were looking a bit more dead. Still, we got off at a stop we guessed would be wise and with our trusted Rio map, started walking towards the downtown core. Many bums and seedy characters were roaming the streets collecting garbage and talking to themselves, and we tried not to make any eye contact. Some old guy who spoke some English guided us towards a church we thought would be cool to check out (from the map).

Cathedral of Sao Sebastiao

As we crossed under a bridge that smelt of urine and other human excrement, we were approaching what looked like a pyramid! Being terribly fond of these structures, we wondered if this was the church. There was a tower with a cross on it and some bells right in front of it, so in amazement at the structure, we entered. What we saw inside took our breath away (even more so than the outside). It was a serene, austere, and grand interior, unlike the ornate, gold-embossed, and pretentious Catholic churches we were used to. It was the Cathedral of Sao Sebastiao (Saint Sebastian). With our jaws still dragging on the floor, our eyes were just scanning the interior all around in absolute awe. Our hearts felt at peace while our eyes were betraying our mind, since everything defied logic. What we felt was pure emotion, somewhere between confusion and amazement. This was unlike ANY religious building we’d ever seen! For us, it seemed a perfect environment as the surroundings didn’t seem too earthly, yet had a humility and simplicity to it that made us feel grounded. As well, the religious chants playing in the background was unworldly and soothing at the same time. We stayed for quite some time soaking in the atmosphere. We reluctantly left and continued our journey downtown, this time coming across another neighbourhood that we imagined would be lively and safe. It was the Lapa/Gloria area of Rio, yet being Sunday, most shops/restaurants were closed and all sorts of people were just loitering around with no business at hand. So, we wanted to get out of here and fast.

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We tried to hail a few cabs in vain, then inquired with a hotel where to go from here for food, since we were by now terribly hungry. The hotel manager provided us a Rio guide, which we scanned and to our amazement, found a couple of Indian restaurants. We called and the owner who also spoke Hindi sounded more than pleased to have us. So we hopped on the subway and went to the Botafogo area (another chic/hip neighbourhood like Copacabana). Finding the restaurant, we sat down and opened our menus. What we read made us do a double-take and then shake our heads in disbelief.

Here’s a sample price list in USD:

  • Lassi: $7
  • Nimbu Pani (lime water): $7
  • Plate of plain rice: $9
  • Saag Paneer: $30
  • Chicken dish: $45
  • Thali (for two): $90

We really couldn’t believe what we were reading and so when the owner approached our table, we mentioned that we were a bit shocked at the prices. We explained we were from Toronto and so are used to MUCH MUCH cheaper Indian food. To this, he replied in a smart-ass tone (to Penny), “This is not Toronto, my dear. We are the only Indian restaurant in Rio.” He then went on to justify it by suggesting these prices would feed two people. Thinking these prices should feed a village, we were debating whether to have a samosa plate (6 samosas of questionable size for $10) or not. In the end, we couldn’t live with ourselves if we ate anything here, so we just packed up and left. On the way back, we were just exclaiming the ridiculous ‘sham’ of a place we’d just come from, and how this guy could possibly get away with charging so much (given the cost of ingredients) and other random thoughts. We decided to grab a slice of pizza instead.

Atop Corcavado

June 23rd, 2008

It was raining again today and after debating last night whether to come back to Rio after Iguassu Falls (but then finding out the flights would be too expensive), we told ourselves let’s make the most of our last day here.

So on the bill for today were the two landmarks we skipped yesterday. First stop: Corcovado Mountain in the heart of Rio atop which stood the famous Christ statue with arms stretched out. We took the tram (that travelled up on a tooth-and-gear track system) up the mountain even though the same illicit tour guide from yesterday offered the car ride. The ride was quite a joy, passing through the Tijuaca rain forest and glimpsing stunning sights of Rio amidst the exotic and tall trees. The ride took a whole 20 minutes, along which we encountered a tram returning from the top in which several tourists were singing songs from The Sound of Music. We partook in it, even if sounding less than professional than them (they were probably a church choir group).

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At the top, we were immediately amazed by the incredible, breathtaking, marvellous, stupendous, splendiferous, panoramic views of Rio. We didn’t even pay due homage to the statue yet, since the views were something we’d never encountered anywhere (even San Francisco which is sadly now #2 in the Prettiest Cities on Earth). There was the ocean, the beaches, the many mountains dotting the city and dividing it in the centre, the many neighbourhoods dispersed as far as the eye could see, and most of all, the clouds. We felt lucky to have come today, since the view of the city was not obscured at all. The clouds that were there seemed like they were whispering to the mountains around, making the atmosphere mystical and calm. We made our way to the base of the statue, which was sight in itself. This famous statue is the symbol of the city, greeting everyone with its open arms. We spent a lot of time soaking in the panorama and wishing we could take all of this with us on our journey onwards. The pictures and videos just don’t do it justice – this city is absolutely spectacular! Knowing us, we couldn’t have picked a better day to come up here. The climate, charged with mist and vapor, added a feeling of ‘je ne sais quoi’ – the sort of beauty, mystique, and even romance that hill stations are known for. It felt like walking amidst the clouds, while drinking from a view that couldn’t be beat. We sat at the restaurant at the base of the statue for coffee and snacks, and even these tasted better than ever – on top of which we had impeccable service from this old waiter.

Sugarloaf

We then headed off to the Sugar Loaf Mountain, which also dominates Rio’s skyline. Unlike at Corcovado, the ride up would be by cable car going from the base to an ‘in-between’ hill called Urca Hill before another cable car would take us to the Sugar Loaf Mountain. The cable car was packed and the ride somewhat unnerving, yet affording us another set of amazing views of the city and Corcovado Mountain which we’d just visited. At Urca Hill, we were pleasantly surprised to see an entire set-up with coffee shops, amphitheater, lookout points, a helipad for aerial tours, and a mini rainforest. Again, the views were breathtaking, this time giving us another perspective on Rio as well as the surrounding islands.

We took the next cable car to the Sugar Loaf mountain whose peak was obscured by clouds and as we approached the car’s landing at the peak, we were completely immersed in the clouds. Walking around, we found a cafe where we sat with our next dose of coffee and snacks, and were happy when the clouds parted. We could make out the Christ statue in the distance and thought to ourselves, the ‘Rio de Janeirinos?’ are a lucky people indeed, living amidst such beauty year-round.

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The city itself seems to have grown in between the mountains and sprawled everywhere meeting the oceans with some amazing beaches and bays. We really wanted to see the city by night, so we waited (in the cold) and by then, it had started to rain pretty heavily. But, we were enjoying some more coffee and the time somehow passed – we also took a detour around the peak walking through some forested areas that had paths. These seemed like paths in another realm, as we walked amidst tall bamboos, other exotic plants, and the surrounding mists. It was getting dark and the city started to brighten up and sparkle here and there. We decided to take the cable car down to Urca Hill again, where we caught the city by night and wished our camera had better ‘night’ features. However, we realized by now it wasn’t the pictures/movies that’d make the memories – it was just being here. Amazing Rio!

We head off to Natal tomorrow morning – more to come.

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