As much as I wanted to hole myself up in the warm sandy beaches of Copacabana, there was an entire city left to be explored. And so, I ventured out.
Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon
The neighbourhood of Lagoa lay just beyond our little beachside enclave of Copacabana. The centrepiece was a serene saltwater lagoon set amidst steep, rain forested mountains. The distant silhouette of Christ the Redeemer loomed over us as we set off on the 7.4km path that circled around the lagoon. Dotted along the way were a myriad of lakeside restaurants and carts, serving up fresh coconut water and chilled chopas (beer). Lycra-clad joggers and skateboarders passed us by as tiny white dinghies skimmed over the blue lagoon.
Upon hearing music and high-pitched children's laughter we gravitated towards a group of pre-schoolers and their parents. A fête was underway by the edge of the water. My toddler rushed up to the children gambolling amidst crafts tables and toys. Aghast, and unsure whether we'd be welcome, I tried to rein him in, only for a kindly lady to interject in broken English, reassuring me that it was fine. It was their end of year school party, but all children were welcome. She ushered me towards a table piled high with pão de queijo (Brazilian cheese bread) and brigadeiros (a local chocolate dessert) and asked us to help ourselves. Suddenly we found ourselves embraced by the local community, chatting about raising children in different parts of the world.
Known for its vibrant nightlife, many tourists flock to this gritty quarter to take selfies on the Escadaria Selarón—a series of stairs connecting the neighbourhoods of Lapa and Santa Teresa. Each of the 250 steps are covered in colourful tiles, some depicting countries and languages from around the world. Entrepreneurial residents of the houses adjacent to the steps also offer their photography services. For a small fee they will advise you on the best angles and even take photos for you—truly an Instagrammer's delight!
The Lapa Arches (or Arcos de Lapa) is a striking 18th century aqueduct that also serves as a bridge connecting the tramway between the neighbourhoods of Santa Teresa and the city centre. The stark white Roman style aqueduct stands in contrast to the filthy streets below. I had ventured out to the site mid-morning. It was fairly deserted save for the odd homeless person. I must admit, I didn't feel particularly safe. However, they do say Lapa has a thriving nightlife. But alas, as a parent to a toddler, I wasn't able to test that theory.
Built into a steep hillside, Rocinha is the largest favela (urban slum) in Brazil. Having grown up in Dhaka, one would think I'd be fairly acquainted with slums and would want to steer clear of them. But I felt compelled to visit. Maybe it was the notoriety brought about by films like The City of God or maybe it was simply because I wanted to learn how regular folk in Rio live—afar cry from the fancy beachside kiosks of Copacabana. However, I also decided that this would be one of those excursions I'd do without the little one in tow.
I didn't want to play into the exploitation that often comes hand in hand with slum tours—when you're whizzed around in air-conditioned cars and dropped off at the token orphanage and/or crafts stall for a photo-op. I researched long and hard till I found a company that promised both safety and authenticity. And that's how I met Pedro—tour guide by day, high-schooler by night.
Born in Rocinha, Pedro's early years were typical of most children growing up in favelas, marked by violence and poverty. Pedro introduced me to the favela life. His style was not so much a guided tour as friendly banter amongst friends who were simply travelling together. As our small group walked through the meandering alleyways of Rocinha, climbing down impossibly steep stairs, through concealed doorways and ducking under coils of wire, he educated me on the ways of the favela—how residents don't kill, rob or rape one another, and how they rely on the gangs, rather than the police, for protection. Gang lords have a high sense of morality when it comes to residents on their turfs. They are the keepers of peace in the favelas, the ones who step in to curb domestic violence and sort out petty crimes. It isn't for lack of police presence though. Armed police patrol the streets of Rocinha, their armoured vehicles cruising up and down the main road.
As alarming as it may appear, I couldn't help but notice many of them sipping coffee and texting, their semi-automatics slung nonchalantly on their shoulders.
As we sat down to lunch with Pedro and his friends, I realised that slum dynamics didn't change much around the world and nor are they devoid of law and order. They just follow a different set of rules, a different way of life. It was, to put it simply, survival of the fittest.
Like so many cosmopolitan cities around the world, Rio's commercial hub is a hive of activity with locals flitting between soaring skyscrapers, shops and restaurants. The glass and steel behemoths stand in stark contrast to shabby art-deco shopfronts and the gilded splendour of baroque churches and theatres. The Paço Imperial, the formal imperial palace, and the National History Museum, harken back to the days of old-world colonialism, proffering stunning displays of Portuguese architecture.
It was amidst these dilapidated buildings and grungy streets of central Rio de Janeiro that I came across the most enchanting example of old-world charm—the 180-year-old Royal Portuguese Reading Room or Real Gabinete Português de Leitura. As the receptionist signed me in, she gave me a crash course in the history of the library before ushering me into the belly of the building.
I entered the reading chamber and was immediately transported to what can only be described as a set from the Harry Potter movies. Bright shafts of sunlight filtered through an intricate stained-glass dome, lighting up the dark shelving, three-storeys high, every inch of which was covered in dusty tomes. The sheer magnificence took my breath away and I had to sit down at one of the study carrels to take it all in. My hands grazed over the aged table, worn smooth by centuries of researchers who had sat there before me. Tourists tiptoed past, taking care to protect the sanctity of the site. It was equal parts tranquil, magical and spiritual. A greying, bespectacled man sat across from me, half hidden behind a towering pile of books. He looked up briefly, caught my stunned gaze, and said in the softest of whispers, “A remarkable place, isn't it? Inspires you.” I nodded mutely. We both turned to our journals and began furiously scribbling down our thoughts.
Next stop: Rio's most breath-taking views!
Samai Haider is a writer, traveller, artist and... economist. If her rather odd amalgamation of interests isn't dotty enough, she took to travelling around South America—with her pack and toddler strapped to her back. Read about the fables of her foibles here at The Daily Star. You can see more of her work at:http://samaihaider.com/