First published in the Sunday Herald, in June 2007.
This image used with kind permission of Studio Markos Fortes.
Nowhere symbolises escape like Rio de Janeiro. From The Lavender Hill Mob to A Fish Called Wanda, cinema’s fugitives traditionally have one destination in mind: a beautiful city full of beautiful people where the normal rules don’t apply. Flying down to Rio is True Romance gone to plan, the prize in Shallow Grave, the end to all our troubles.
Great train robber Ronnie Biggs arrived in 1970, exploited an extradition loophole and stayed. He returned to Britain as an old man, but in the public imagination he is forever sunbathing, flicking the Vs at Scotland Yard, untouchably far from home.
The lawlessness that was once part of Rio’s appeal now represents the greatest threat to its tourism industry. Award-winning film City Of God depicted one of the world’s most dangerous cities, and if its graphic violence looked too shocking to be true, the 50 murders per 100,000 inhabitants each year are real enough.
But for all these pop culture preconceptions, the most vivid images in my head as I board the plane to Brazil are technicolour yellow, narrated by John Motson. Carlos Alberto hugging Pelé, “Socrates, a fully qualified doctor,” Rivelinho one-nil.
She dances on the sand, I know that much.
In 1808 Dom João VI of Portugal fled across the Atlantic to establish a new imperial base out of reach of Napoleon’s armies. His court brought refinement and a cultural superiority complex that endures to this day. São Paulo has been the economic engine of Brazil for the last century, Brasilia its political capital for almost fifty years, but no Carioca would swap them for the marvellous city they live in. The Cidade Maravilhosa is somewhere to escape to, not from.
On a clear day at Corcovado you can see the whole of Rio laid out beneath you. Standing under the outstretched arms of Christ The Redeemer, in the shade of his crucifixion, the view stops idle chat dead. To the north, the sprawling shanty towns that you pass on the taxi ride from the airport, Sugar Loaf mountain rising from Botafogo Bay, and directly below, Zona Sul, hemmed in between Tijuca forest, the favelas, and the ocean.
The patchwork of segregation looks neat from on high, but is far more chaotic in practice. Zona Sul is made up of Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon, Jardim Botanico and Gavea. It’s where every Carioca with any money wants to live, and where you should try to stay. But as soon as the gated high-rises end, the favelas begin, spreading haphazardly up the hillside. The first world and the third world co-exist uneasily – all buildings have a security guard and most families employ a servant.
Copacabana, my friend tells me, “is finished.” The Palace is still Rio’s most desirable hotel, but the cobblestoned seafront is a catwalk for ‘putas’ and the streets in behind are overcrowded- a Joan Collins neighbourhood that was last glamorous 20 years ago. These days Leblon is where it’s at, or Ipanema, or even across the lagoon by the botanic gardens.
Most tourists come to Rio for Carnival, in February, or for New Year’s Eve, when prices are high and the crush is tight. And while it must be an incredible experience to join those two parties, there’s definitely something to be said for the off-season. August is the middle of winter, but the sky is blue and the beach is busy.
At Ipanema, Cariocas have a spot. Our spot is Posto Nove, a stretch of “cool liberal people and families” downstream from the gay reach. The hills known as Two Brothers are due South, like the hump of an enormous camel buried in the sand of Leblon. We take a folding chair and sit down in this huge improvised restaurant, where each competing section sells beer, frozen mango, iced tea and coconut water straight from the shell. Open a tab when you arrive and settle up when you leave. Buy sandwiches and trinkets as they pass.
Now, like any heterosexual man prepared to be honest with himself, as soon as I get to Ipanema I’m thinking “tall and tanned and young and lovely” and keeping a furtive look-out for the most token bikinis. I leave disappointed. Brazilian women are beautiful, it’s true, and the cultural obsession with ‘bunda’ is such that every newspaper stand features at least one life-size cardboard cut-out with peachy cheeks, but on this unlucky day, guy candy is all around. The young men with uniform six-packs play volleyball using their feet, like keepie uppie champions, or surf nonchalantly in the breakers.
The waves are gentle enough, it seems, for diving through and under, or coasting in boardless, but within ten minutes I’m in trouble at the intersection of two currents, where no matter how hard you swim, you can’t get closer to the shore. Beach regulars know this, which is presumably why the wooden danger sign is so inconspicuous.
It’s hard to suppress the panic that comes with a realisation of powerlessness. The guy in the red Baywatch shorts keeps whistling and pointing, but is he ever going to come and get me, I wonder, as the drag drags and the fear rises. Thankfully, I somehow reach land on my own, panting horribly, to receive a humiliating lecture from the lifeguard, rather than mouth to mouth. This is my first Gringo moment.
As a tourist in Rio, it’s wise to accept that you are a Gringo and there’s nothing you can do about it. You can fake tan all you like, you can speak Portuguese, you can describe every one of Jairzinho’s goals in the 1970 World Cup as if you were there, but you cannot possess that intangible ‘jeito Brasileiro’ – you will never move or even think like a Carioca. It’s not a derogatory term, merely an observation: We are Brazilian, you are not, never mind.
This only crosses the line into outright arrogance on the football field, where the extraordinary achievements of the national team encourage delusions of Denilson in the worst of hackers. An away game in Rio is a daunting prospect, even if it’s just a six-a-side ‘pelada’ played in Barra Da Tijuca, a suburb where each luxury condominium has armed guards at the gate. The goalies are employed by the owners of the pitch as shot-stopping caretakers. It’s no coincidence that all bar one of the players are white, but the keepers are black.
My first touch is a 50-50 challenge that leaves me on the floor, hoping I haven’t broken my leg. Not wishing to bring shame on my homeland, I run it off, take grim satisfaction at the huge purple bruise developing on my shin, and little by little manage to win a measure of respect. It’s not quite David Narey in ‘82, or Archie Gemmill against the Dutch, but it’s not embarrassing either.
Spot the Gringo is at its easiest when the Samba starts to play. Much of the best live music is found in Lapa, an appealingly seedy quarter downtown that was once Rio’s administrative centre and now illustrates the city’s declining economic fortunes and waning political influence. This, rather than Ipanema or Copacabana, is where young Cariocas come out to play at night. The raucous crowds gathering at every corner are racially mixed, something you rarely find in Zona Sul.
At clubs like Rio Scenario there are plenty of tourists, certainly, but the later it gets the more locals take to the dancefloor. Trying to discern a pattern by watching feet move is futile, so the only thing for it is to attempt to drink your hips loose. No-one cares that you’re not doing it right, and after three caipirinhas neither will you.
If you’ve ever sampled the national drink of Brazil at a bar in the UK, the chances are it was made with cachaça 51, until recently the only brand of cane spirit with a major distributor. It has a red and white label that looks like a football strip, it costs about a pound a litre, and it tastes like paraffin. In Rio, it’s served on the streets, nowhere else. Enthusiasts drink the best cachaça neat, and savour its maturity and regional character like single malt whisky. All the same, it does taste nicer with muddled lime and sugar, if a little too easy to drink. There are strawberry capirinhas, watermelon caipirinhas, kiwi, lychee, pineapple…
Fruit is part of the culture in Brazil. Juice shops sell freshly-squeezed anything, everywhere, and there’s no denying it tastes better off the tree than it does after an ocean cruise in the deep freeze.
Eating on the street is one of Rio’s great pleasures, at grimy cafes known as ‘botecos’ or ‘pe sujos’, which literally means ‘dirty feet’. Beer is served ‘Estupidamente gelada’ in 200ml glasses and fridges proudly display their temperature on the door, so profound is the terror of warm lager. At the best botecos, like Bracarense in Leblon, the bar snacks win awards, and working your way through the menu is a fine way to spend the afternoon; crab cakes and salt cod, bean soup with bacon, or prawn balls with yucca and cream cheese. Without exception, it tastes nicer than it sounds written down.
All carnivores should go to a ‘churrascaria’ at least once, if only to experience the childish thrill of all-you-can-eat in a refined setting. Each diner receives a card. Place it green side up beside your plate, and gorge on the fillet steak, lamb chops, pork sausages and chicken hearts brought to your table. The red side of the card signifies “I’m resting/I’m finished/That sirloin looks tasty but I think I’m having a heart attack.”
The meat is among the world’s finest, but it doesn’t come cheap. Businessmen buy imported Black Label by the bottle, the piano player taps out a discreet bossanova, and while the tab keeps running we are millionaires, on the safe side of Brazil’s gulf between rich and poor. Driving home, we don’t stop at red lights. No-one does after dark.
Car-jackings, kidnappings and shootings fill the newspapers every day. A tourist was stabbed on Copacabana beach the week I was there. But to stay away from Rio because of its crime statistics makes no more sense that giving Edinburgh a miss because you’ve seen Trainspotting. More cocaine passes through Rio than any other city on earth, and the vast majority of the violence takes place in the favelas, between gangs competing for drug distribution rights.
Like most third world cities, Rio demands common sense. But keep your head up and your eyes open, only get into the official yellow taxis, and there’s no reason to be scared. On our last night, we went dancing in Mangueira, a favela in Zona Norte famous for its samba school. We left the camera at home, drank kerosene caipirinhas until four in the morning, and didn’t feel threatened for a second.
Brazil’s huge size means that visiting other cities involves taking an expensive internal flight. Salvador, the capital of Bahia, is 1100 miles from Rio – the distance from Glasgow to Madrid. At the risk of offending ‘Paulistas’ you can skip São Paulo, which for all its money and its many cultural attractions still looks like a carpark stretching as far as the eye can see. On the one night we spent there, a public transport strike helped break the record for the world’s biggest traffic jam – 180 miles long.
And there’s just no need. Without leaving the state you can lie on the flawless beaches of Buzios or Angra dos Reis, cool off in the mountains near Teresópolis, or visit the colonial town of Parati, home to an international literary festival that attracts authors of the calibre of Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster each August. And if you end up staying, like Ronnie Biggs, you can always blame it on Rio.