Pico Iyer Journeys

A Day in the Life of the Marvelous, Desperate City

At dusk, it’s said, most Cariocas huddle in front of the TV to catch the latest segment of the wildly popular soap operas, or readying themselves, in their various ways, for night. I like to go to Maracana, the cathedral of soccer, then, if only because it is the one time most visitors travel into the working man’s industrial area in the northern suburbs. During games between two Rio teams–especially the Fluminense-Flamengo derby, which I once witnessed–the huge stadium, where 200,000 have gathered to see a game (“Two hundred and twenty thousand,” says the Brazilian next to me) is not for the faint-hearted; I remember seeing shirtless boys in the upper terraces depositing large buckets of urine on the unfortunates below. But on a quiet night like this, when hapless Botafogo is up against a team from the provinces, it’s a pleasant place to while away the early evening, and see how people in Rio dream (of a 145 lb. shoeshine boy, for example, who scrounged together a living by collecting the tobacco from spent cigarettes and then changed his name from Edson Arantes do Nacimento to Pele and scored his 1000th goal in Maracana, saying, afterwards, “Remember the children, never forget Brazil’s poor children”).

Walking out of the game into a full-moon night, seeing the slopes above turned into a twinkle of lights (not streetlights, alas, since most favelas have no streets), I am reminded of the impenitent beauty of the place, which is what it gives its people, often, instead of a steady livelihood or many prospects. Part of the unique promise, and fascination, of the city is that you ride past normal shops, the decaying houses of the poor above you, and, at almost every intersection in Copacabana and Ipanema, are greeted by flashes of the sea two blocks away, as dazzlingly blue or green as one of the jewels in the H. Stern shops found at every turn.

I love to ride the buses in Rio, and it is part of my policy to try never to take a subway or a taxi here; it is not a city for heading underground, or trying to get anywhere too quickly. The tram, the cable-car, one’s feet and maybe best of all the bus is the way to feel the normal, breathing city, taking in the curves of the coastline (on the 125 or 175 bus), and feeling the vines and the jungly profusion almost close enough to touch. The buses are everywhere in Rio, and for sixty cents they will lead you up into the hills, along the beach, or in and out of the tunnels, which lead to startlingly different climatic zones and views; stopping every time a passenger holds his hand out, so it seems, they offer the ideal pace for taking in the city, the breeze coming in through the window, the blue of Botafogo Bay flashing past as you near downtown.

The city suffers from a surfeit of buses, a local friend called Andre Luis has told me, because the men who own the bus companies are close to politicians–or politicians themselves–and have made it their mission to foil the extension of the subway system and to ensure that a hundred bus-companies bloom. For the happy passenger, this means that you seldom have to wait more than thirty seconds for a bus, they’re never very full and they are pitifully ready to accommodate themselves to the customer’s needs. At the soccer game, I had asked a fellow spectator if all the police patroling Copacabana on horses and in small groups had meant less crime. “Less crime,” he answered sagely, “and more corruption.”

Now, as the evening deepens, I get into a bus and ride towards Leblon. The buses that pass through Copacabana and Ipanema pass a wonderworld of privilege in the Zona Sul: flat-screen TVs flashing from upstairs apartments, restaurants with illuminated balconies and outdoors candlelit cafes where the girls in their backless dresses and the men in jacket and ties imagine themselves in Milan for the evening. In Leblon, where the cars are double-parked along the rua Dias Ferreira, a cluster of stylish restaurants, even the McCafe offers items called Ibiza, London and Paris, and the local gods, cited and quoted everywhere you turn are, curiously, Che Guevara and Philippe Starck.

Night brings back the segregations of the morning on Ipanema Beach, the largest favela in the city, Rocinha, with its 260,000 people hovering over the tennis courts of the American School and the extravagance of the malls in Gavea. It also brings out, inevitably, what is as essential a part of Rio as its pleasure, namely fear. The comfortable live in intensely barricaded condos, and walk very fast along the sidewalks, or in groups; at night, I’ve been told, no driver stops at red lights because they are terrified of carjackers. For the same reason, there are few luxury cars in evidence in this most opulent of areas; in 2002, there were a thousand robberies a day in Sao Paulo, which is not much more dangerous than Rio.

The physical layout of Rio, as of every city, says that geography is destiny and the rich can be happily segregated from the poor. But as in Bombay or New York, as in Dickens’s London, psychology doesn’t work that way. Not long ago, a friend tells me, a gang let off three grenades far from the favelas, just to show the police what it was capable of; over a ten-year period recently, 6000 Rio children were found killed on the streets, and the rich not only fear their Rolexes being pulled off, disfiguring their arms, but also the sudden cutting of their hair, to be sold to wigmakers.

For the first time in all my travels, having heard all the stories (and knowing that Brazil had the largest number of fatal shootings in the world, per capital, according to a 2003 survey),  I dress down wherever I am going in Rio, in torn jeans and ragged t-shirt and Payless Shoe Source sneakers. I leave my watch at home and even buy a decoy wallet in Miami Airport, which I fill with just enough small notes and single credit card to keep a mugger happy; when I check into my hotel in Ipanema, for the first time ever I see a form that has to be signed by everyone who does not {itals} want to use the hotel safe. Helped by my Indian complexion, perhaps, this all means that I am never the subject of unwanted attention on Rio’s streets, just another disheveled brown figure to whom people speak Portuguese. It also means, however, that nice hotels refuse to tell me their prices and concierges are slow to help me. Rio has something of the standoffishness of a woman who’s been complimented on her beauty once too often.

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