Pico Iyer Journeys

A Day in the Life of the Marvelous, Desperate City

My first point of duty, therefore, is to get away from the beach. The beach is the public face that Rio presents to the outside world; yet the city’s real uniqueness, for me, lies in the tropical exuberance of its hills, which jut in and out of the streets and force you to drive through mountains to get from a hotel to a church. Santa Monica and Nice have beaches, after all; but no other city that I know has armadilloes and coati and jacaraca snakes lurking in its hills. When he was growing up, Tom Jobim used to say, 90% of the city was forerst; and even now, when you ride a train up to the city’s main tourist site, Corcovado, you pass trumpet trees and Brazilian spider flower trees, jequitibas, passionflowers and flamboyants.

In some ways the power and fascination of Rio is that it dramatizes, more vividly than anywhere, a central question before much of the world today: how much the migrating countryside will swallow up our urban blueprints, and return our cities to a kind of atavistic past. In Rio this has a literal significance in the favelas, or officially designated slums, that literally spread across the hillsides like the wild flowers for which they’re named, and seem about to eat up the Sheraton on the beach, or the gated condo-blocks all over. But the deeper drama of the city lies in the fact that it was formed, almost entirely, by Africa and Europe, and it remains unclear to this day which influence will claim supremacy.

When the prince regent of Portugal saw Napoleon approaching Lisbon in 1807, he set sail for Rio and established his court here, becoming King Joao VI; Rio is thus the only city in the New World to have been the center of a European monarchy, ruling what was then the world’s greatest empire. Yet Rio was also the main port in a nation that sustained slavery long after it had died out elsewhere, and by the early 19th century, two-thirds of the population was black. In some ways, it has not resolved that tension even now, and the tens of thousands of people from the countryside swarming in each year to swell the favelas almost stand for a suppressed past that is literally reclaiming its territory daily. Official stories of Rio speak of the samba as the happy offspring of African rhythms and Portuguese folk songs; but the other minglings are often less harmonious.

In response, the city has sometimes tried to dispel both its heritages and simply commit itself to a wildly placeless future. As soon as I have exhausted the long promenade in Ipanema, I jump onto a bus and ride into the center of town to see the National Cathedral, built in honor of the martyred saint, San Seabastian, after whom Sao Sebastiao do Rio de Janeiro is formally named. Like many of Brazil’s stylistic architectural flourishes, it sits in the middle of a completely deserted area like a conical gizmo dropped from a passing space ship. The avenues and tower blocks all around are completely empty on weekends, and when I walk into its famous interior,walls of stained-glass rising up towards the heavens, expecting to see a Sunday service, all I come across are three Japanese couples trudging around the space made for 20,000 while Cat Stevens’s melody for “Morning Has Broken” pipes out of the high-tech speakers.

Many of Brazil’s most science fictive buildings have the air of beached whales, stranded between the foliage everywhere and the human scale of the old colonial houses; they look now like promissory notes from a future that will never arrive. As I walk out of the cathedral, I see nobody except two security guards standing outside the huge tower-block of the Petroblas oil company. Yet just down the street from them–and this is what keeps Rio so buoyant, even hopeful in the middle of its sorrows–is the station for the streetcar that takes you up to the last breathing colonial neighborhood of Santa Teresa.

The set-up is a perfect emblem of Rio in miniature. A long, long line has formed outside the small station, and many minutes pass with no sign of the bondinho, or little tram. Brazilians in the crowd begin singing raucous songs, playing rhythms on the wall or on one another’s backs. At last a tiny train does arrive, and a few bodies push through the turnstiles and take their places on its few wooden pews, Then, for twenty minutes, nothing happens, to the tune of ever more derisive whistles and songs.

When at last the train does set off into the hills, the ritual is repeated. More people in line, another long wait, clamorous shouts and a riotous music of discontent. Then the train shows up again, and after we’ve boarded, declines to move.

And then at last we head off, and instantly I am reminded of why Rio is among the world’s enchanted cities. Very soon we are in what feels like a tropical forest, red flowers growing along the tracks and lush vines reaching in to grab us, the overgrowth that is the central image of the city seeming ready to transport us to a magical realism short story. The blue ocean flashes in the distance, far below us now, up in the hills, the sheltered colonial buildings of Santa Teresa loom on both sides of us, along sleepy, narrow streets, and the train zigzags higher and higher, around sharp turns, in between what feel like exploding trees, forcing passing cars to take shelter on the sidewalk.

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