Monday, March 30, 2009

March 28, 2009

Being in Rio has been a mixture of beautiful sights, warm sunshine, sandy beaches and quaint markets. Despite being spoiled living in Victoria, BC, they aren't lying when they talk about the incomparable beauty of Rio. It's a palette of vibrant green mountains, soft brown beach lines, deep blue skies, and mosaic sidewalks. It's been a wonderful place to visit and we've very much enjoyed our week here, but Rio is also a very large city that seems to have more than it's fair share of crime and violence, making me feel on edge whenever we were out and about, which was a lot of the time. There are aggressive vendors, scary neighbourhoods that pop up when you least expect it, and the constant reminder ringing in your ears to carry only the necessary cash/valuables... enough to appease a robber, but not enough that you'd lose your shirt. All the tourist books we read and friends we talked to warned us of the crime problems that plague Rio. My fears have been unnaturally fed further since picking up a Brazilian novel called, “Elite Squad” by Luiz Eduardo Soares, Andre Batista, and Rodrigo Pimentel. It's a book that shares some of the 'adventures' of the BOCE police squad as they've dealt exclusively with crimes in the favelas. Not peaceful reading... But in spite of all these fears and warnings, we have not had a single problem with crime during our stay, and have not even seen any crime outside of the TV news.

When we first arrived off the airplane, we hopped a bus and located the little bachelor suite in Ipanema, which we were lucky enough to borrow from Livia, Chris's girlfriend, who was coming to Florianopolis for a visit. A bit of a house swap... We got some groceries and scouted around the neighbourhood a bit, but didn't do anything too exotic that first day.

The following day we decided to make our way to the Christ Redeemer statue, despite some low cloud which threatened to hamper visibility. At the base of the mountain, we hummed and hawed about whether we should go up to the top, as the spy-cam at the ticket booth showed a pretty fogged-in Christ Redeemer. A woman approached us and told us she would be happy to take us up the mountain in her tour van for less than what the 'official' train would cost us, plus she would show us some other sites as we ascended the mountain. With another look at the spy-cam, we could see that the clouds were intermittent, masking the enormous statue one moment and letting it go the next. We figured that after making such an effort to bus our way across town to the mountain base, combined with the likelihood that we'd be up the mountain long enough to catch good glimpses in between cloud cover of both the city below and the statue above, we would take the chance and go up the mountain.

We wound our way up and around, learning a bit about some of the smaller sites we would have missed had we taken the train. Our first stop was on a mountain peak beside the
 Redeemer statue. From here we could see tremendous views of Rio, stretching out in all directions. It was also interesting to see the neighbouring peak and statue from a close but not immediate perspective. There was a sign posted asking us to not feed the monkeys. We would have happily obliged had we seen any monkeys, however we were told they often take to the hidden trees once the day starts heating up. Too bad, as that would have been exciting to see wild monkeys.

The next stop was the highest point a car could take us before needing to transfer to the 'official' tour van. From here, they regularly shuttle people up to the statue and back down to their original tour van or cab, to make arrivals more organized and mountain top travel less congested.

After that short shuttle, we found ourselves climbing the dozens of stairs required to get to the base of the Christ Redeemer statue. There are elevators, but the line up for them was pretty lengthy, so we opted for some exercise. It was all quite mystical taking in such an enormous work of art as clouds both hid and revealed it's magnitude. The overwhelming effort it would have taken to hoist up piece by piece, assemble and then erect the stone is mind boggling. It really does deserve the title of being one of the modern wonders of the world. The kids thought it was quite something, though I suspect they couldn't completely comprehend the entirety of what it was they were looking at. Quite frankly, I'm not sure I could, either. It's something that defies words, amazes the senses, and begs for some alone, quiet reflection time which cannot happen in a crowd of people or when you're trying to not lose your children in all the movement.
The next day we took in a favela tour. A favela is another word for the shanty towns that line the hills in and around Rio. It's interesting how homes
 overlooking the city with ocean views are highly valued in North America and cost a great deal, but here in Rio, because of slave history and later, tradition, many of the 5-star ocean view neighbourhoods that overlook the city are favelas, put together into rather crude communities, and most run by one of three powerful drug lords. The tour was done very tastefully, setting out to eliminate myths, confirm realities, fund favela schools with tour fees, and patronize local handicraft makers, so we ethically felt good about signing up for this kind of tour. We also wanted to help the kids see how things are for other people in the world- to want less and share more. Unfortunately, there had been some very recent violent activity between some feuding drug lords, so one of the favelas was unavailable to tour. The police were there searching for some king-pins, and had all the entrances and exits closed off. Later than night, we saw there had been several killings there that day. Instead, we visited another smaller favela, one not tangled up in that particular brawl. We toured the school that our fee's helped fund, we saw the deep and almost underground neighbourhoods people had developed within the community, we briefly wandered around their main street and observed the regular life that carried on, and along the way heard many of the stories and facts that the tour guide had to share. 

Jillian was quite bored by the end, but perked up when the tour guide shared stories about kids. Sadly, they weren't happy stories. One that particularly sticks out is the concept of 'fire cracker boys'. The drug lords hire young boys to be look-outs for either police activity entering the favela or for the arrival of their drugs. When either approach the favela boundary, the kids are to light off fire crackers as a signal to their bosses. Some shifts require kids being awake all night, while others require attentiveness all day, despite distractions that would be quite impossible for a 10 year old to resist. If, or when, the young child falls asleep or become distracted, letting something important slip by them, those boys are either tremendously beaten or killed. The kids on the “night” shift often need to use drugs to help keep them awake, sparking other more complicated problems and getting the kids more deeply involved in a future with the drug world. She also shared stories of some of the positive things the drug lords have done for their communities (ie: improving water conditions, offering some monetary compensation for loss of life, etc.), however she was quick to point out that these men are
n't 'good' men, but simply men who will sometimes do good things when it's convenient for them. A very complicated life, and one I am profoundly grateful to not have to be a part of. I hope our kids learned how lucky they are to lead a free, safe life in quiet Victoria. Their worries consist of whether they'll remember to do laundry in time to have a spare pair of clean underwear, or if they'll enjoy the warm meal prepared for their dinner. A distant life from that of a fire cracker boy...

We have greatly enjoyed the beaches around Rio, in between site seeing. Both the Ipanema and the Copacabana beaches are lovely and bustling. The surf is fairly strong, so we had to be vigilant to not let the kids get out too deep for fear they'd get sucked out, but they have learned from their previous scares so it wasn't difficult to remind them to keep close to the edge (though Matthew continues to straddle the 'safety' fence by regularly going to the outer limits of where he should...). There is never a vendor too far away who is eager to sell you towels, bikinis, shrimp kebobs, cold beverages, sweet treats, sarongs, earrings, henna tattoos, soccer jerseys, etc. I can't count the number of times we had to say, “Nao, obrigata”. However, it was nice to be catered to, even if we rarely purchased anything. Beach life is easy to get used to, and these beaches are some of the best around.

Another day we decided we would enjoy visiting the Sugar Loaf, which is a large, tall rock formation that is in the shape of how they used to ship sugar loaves.
When you arrive, you take a cable car several hundred feet up to the first of two look-outs. The cable car is made of glass, so you have a tremendous (and scary!) view of the mountain you're ascending, as well as the land you're leaving behind. At the first look-out, you can wander around a large walking area, getting a view of the city from every angle. It was there that they offered helicopter tours for those interested (or wealthy enough). We watched several helicopters land and take-off. Some of the kids were sad they couldn't 'support' that portion of the tourist industry, however, after Emily getting motion sick on the bus the previous day (and puking in her hat... ewww...), I'm not sure the steep down dive they did shortly after take off would have been wise, even if we were willing to fork out several hundred dollars to do it. It was here, also, that Jillian came upon a retired couple from Washington state who were finishing up a 3-week cruise before flying home later that day. They were missing their grandchildren, and Jillian was more than happy to stand in as a proxy, lapping up their love and attention, which spilled over to the other kids once the rest of us caught up with our five year-old leader. They were a nice couple who were very patient with all our kids, making them feel special and loved. We always love running into people like that.

The next cable car takes you to the mountain summit, which, from a distance doesn't appear to be able to hold much more than a few people at it's peak. However, once you're there, you see that it holds not only many people, but also several look-out tiers, a few gift shops, and a snack bar. We got to see some amazing views of Rio from atop, and 'get the lay of the land' so-do-speak... We also ran into a local teenage school group who had been studying some English, but were out for a field trip that day. They immediately took to the kids, especially Jillian, and tried to practice some of their English words. It was fun watching our shyer children get swept into a spontaneous social interaction with peers. Outwardly, 4/5's of our children did not appear very 'outgoing' but because I know them, I could see the efforts they made in participating in a conversation with someone when there is a language barrier. The school teenagers took photos of each other posing with several of our children. It took some encouragement for our two older boys to look interested when surrounded by slightly older and very pretty girls wanting their pictures taken with the “Canadians”. It was great to see such bright, happy, positive teenagers who, it turned out, don't come from a 'good' part of town. These were kids who seemed to be replacing what would be very easy to fall into for a future life, for something different, something better.

The descent down the mountain was equally thrilling, and I was grateful to touch solid ground again upon our arrival. My stomach does icky things when I see great drops so closeby, especially when my kids are involved. I felt a perceivable stress release once we stepped out of the cable car and away from sharp cliffs and moving objects that suspended us in mid-air. A great place to visit – an even greater place to get down from... Oh, and we did, finally, see some wild monkeys at the look-out in between the two cable car rides. There was no sign asking us not to feed them, so perhaps they got tired of stingy tourists at the Christ Redeemer site, and traded it in for some lovin' at the Sugar Loaf?

One night we visited a market down by the Copacabana beach. It was three long lines of individual tents set up by local vendors, selling everything from lingerie to drums to gems, and everything else in between. The prices were usually quite reasonable, and the kids were able to find some treasures they wanted to purchase with the birthday 'advance' they received from their Grandma and Grandpa McCue. We ran out of bills before the kids had settled up, so we plan to hit the “Hippie Market” Sunday afternoon. I would take the unique handicraft markets any day over the large, overpriced shopping malls here. Granted some of the shopping malls have free wifi and air conditioning, but still, I love the meatiness of a bustling market place where you can get a good deal, you can support local talent, and come out with some very lovely treasures.

Tonight, Rich has taken the kids to a club soccer game in Maracana Stadium. I elected to stay home with Jillian, as the game didn't start until 8:30PM, meaning it would likely end around 11:00PM, and after subway rides and metro buses, they wouldn't be home until around midnight. Jillian wouldn't last that long, and honestly, I was eager for some quiet time to myself after spending a week all together in a small bachelor suite. After a Curious George movie, several “Guess Who” games, and some hair do'ing, Jillian is now asleep and I will anxiously await the return of my soccer fans. Until then, though, I will do what I do best, which is worry about them coming home safely... Rich here, adding my $.02 to Heather's blog... It was a great game. They have a section of the 90,000 seat stadium set aside for families and the elderly, and even offered a “child find” service where you can register your children and have a identity bracelet put on them in case they get lost in the stadium. Given my track record of losing our children, I knew Heather would be relieved with this service, so we took advantage of it. The game ended with Flumanense winning 2-1 over Botafogo, and about 35,000 fans watching the game. There was much singing and chanting during the game, which continued on the way out of the stadium, all the way to the metro station, and then onto the train for almost the entire way home, complete with a percussion 'section' that banged on the roof of our cart to the rhythm of the song. It was a wonderful experience!


No comments: