Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

In the pantheon of cities like Paris, New York, and London, Rio needs no introduction. I’ll give one anyway — it’s not the capital of Brazil. (That’s Brasília. Rio used to be, and even briefly served as the capital of Portugal for a time, the only time in history a colony held the seat of power of an empire.) It sure feels like the cultural capital though.

Songs, books, movies… So much popular culture has been inspired by the city. What can I say that hasn’t already been said?

The name exudes glamour. There’s the world’s most famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema, photogenic and full of photogenic people, lined with barracas selling caipirinhas. Football-crazy folks invented futevôlei (volleyball, but played with a soccer ball and no hands) just so they could play something resembling football on the beach. Then there’s the iconic mountains: Corcovado, with the giant Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer, built in 1931) perched atop, visible from virtually every point of the city, a simultaneous symbol of triumph and of a seemingly watchful eye over a still-heavily Catholic country. Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), perched right over the water, provides a dramatic view both from the ground and from the top. The Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) overlook Ipanema. These aren’t just symbols of Rio, they’ve become symbols of Brazil.

And what would Rio be without samba? There are clubs aplenty in Lapa, the nightlife district — though you could arguably say that vibrant nightlife exists everywhere in the city. Go for a place that pulls out all the stops with the flashy dancers and/or debauchery, or go for a place that’s all about the music, as I did, where the samba band plays as if no one’s watching, singing songs that go on and on and on, yet never feel endless. You get the sense that no one wants the moment to end either, kind of like the whole nostalgia/saudade kick Brazil’s all about.

By day, Lapa’s also home to the Escadaria Selarón, a stairwell decorated from top to bottom by artist Jorge Selarón with tiles of his own and from contributors from all over the world. Not far from that are the Arcos da Lapa, an old aqueduct that continues to serve as a bridge for the heritage tramway to Santa Teresa, a bohemian neighbourhood of twisty streets, mansions, beautiful street art, and hillside views.

But these hillsides speak to something else Rio (and Brazil in general) is notorious for: favelas and crime. As strangely colourful and pretty from afar as they are, it’s particularly jarring to see informal shanty communities built right next to affluent neighbourhoods. The favelas have a complicated relationship with police, often harbouring gangs and drug traffickers who, while taking care of the people of their favelas, attract inter-gang violence and heavy-handed police and military responses that often result in collateral damage. Despite their negative perceptions, favela residents seem to have an intensely strong sense of community and pride.

Rio’s security situation invites outside paranoia, one that I also succumbed to after hearing countless stories of Brazilians and foreign tourists alike sharing stories of muggings, not uncommonly at gunpoint. While it’s true that violent crime in Rio and Brazil in general is an extremely serious issue (one that’s resulted in drastic measures, and a centerpoint in the recent polarising federal election), basic precautions suffice for visitors and many residents, who have no reason to visit certain unsafe neighbourhoods (especially outside of Zona Sul, home to most sites of interest), and day or night, there’s no need to walk down unsafe or abandoned streets when there’s taxis, ride-hailing apps, and buses aplenty. Life in Rio moves as it does in any big city, if not with even more zeal: Downtown bustles in the day, a big mishmash of narrow streets, people with places to go, and streetcars running in between. Cariocas don’t walk around clutching their belongings, leery of their surroundings at all times. Every neighbourhood has its own character and crowd. Botecos and bars fill up to the brim all night, the crowds spilling into streets, with all-night food trucks ready to serve the hungry.

It’s in Botafogo, the neighbourhood that I stayed in, where it seems all the 20-somethings like to go out on any day of the week for something casual. From simple al fresco botecos lining the street with hawkers selling their wares, to sports bars tuned to the live football match, to rowdy family affairs, to trendy bars with craft beers and in-house boozy mate blends, gourmet food, multiple floors, and live music, there’s something for every budget and every mood. I had the chance here to catch up again with Semaj and Robson in their home city, as well as try a few of their recommendations in the area.

I spent my time flitting around other neighbourhoods too, checking out the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura (a Portuguese library of books that seems there to look pretty since the public isn’t allowed to touch any of the books) downtown, looking at the fancy historical buildings in Cinelândia, the sprawling Botanical Gardens (built for the Portuguese king) in its namesake neighbourhood, and the waterfront in Urca. In all cases, beautiful as they were, it was really the in-between moments I enjoyed more: grabbing a fresh juice, beer, pão de queijo (crispy-chewy tapioca-cheese breads, my utter favourite), pastel (fried pastry stuffed with savoury or sweet), or coxinha (like a potato croquette) from the nearest street food counter, sitting down facing the street, doing some people-watching. What would have made it better? Interaction.

Brazilians have a reputation for being super friendly to foreigners, and in no place moreso than Rio. Oddly enough, Rio was the only city in which virtually nobody ever approached me to chat. Perhaps it’s because I don’t look like a gringo, perhaps it’s because I led off interactions in Portuguese… Perhaps it’s because I’m Asian. Either people think I’m of Japanese descent, like many Brazilians, or that I’m one of the relatively new Chinese immigrants, who tend to stick to their own communities and remain closed off. It was a bit jarring to hang out in bars or restaurants alone, share a few brief words and yet remain completely ignored, which was never the case on this entire trip since the Guianas. I think I was treated as if I was a local, which seems a plausible misconception when I’m not running around announcing that I’m a foreigner. That’d be great if I was actually a local, but not unlike my time in Almaty, Kazakhstan, it instead made for a lonelier stay (aside from seeing Robson and Semaj again), one where I felt more like an observer than a participant.

But left entirely to my own devices, that meant I was focused almost entirely on seeing the sights. In between the marquee sights and in times of bad weather, I went around several of Rio’s many museums. Of particular note, though largely untranslated from Portuguese (yet still attracting plenty of international tourists?) and thus somewhat difficult for me to fully absorb, were the Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) — a spectacularly modern, linear interactive museum detailing the origins of the universe and Earth, the trend of human consumption patterns, impact, mitigation, and the need for environmental preservation — and the Museu da Arte do Rio, featuring temporary exhibits on the black origins of samba and Carnaval, the contributions of women to Brazilian society, and the fight for continuing democratic rights and the protests against previous president Michel Temer for his role in Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), the mind-boggling US$10 billion money-laundering scheme that enveloped much of Brazilian’s business and political elite, including the two presidents before him.

Adding into consideration Rio’s world-famous reputation as a gay culture destination and its much more diverse, mixed population than much of the rest of country, and it’s apparent from my brief impressions that Rio is home to heavily left-leaning perspectives and social justice. This contrasts quite heavily with new far-right populist president Jair Bolsonaro’s openly homophobic, frequently misogynistic musings and push for a more fundamentalist-traditional society, as well as his aggressive push for more development in the Amazon at the expense of both the environment and uncontacted indigenous tribes. But when many Brazilians feel left behind both socially and economically, angry from everybody implicated in Lava Jato, and fed up from a government generally complacent to the issue of drugs and violent crime, it’s understandable that they’d turn to someone offering change from the status quo, as extreme as they may be.

These two sides already came to a head during last year’s very polarising election, the result of which surprised much of the world, one that frequently conflates Brazil with what Rio is famous for. Where this government will take Brazil, who knows. But from what I see, Rio will remain a voice of defiance, celebrating the marginalised, and the representative of Brazil to the world.

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