The rains came after our first few days in Rio, and though we would miss the sun and the beach, it gave us a chance to check out some museums and historical sites, and do some hiking in the Tijuca rainforest. I am not a big hiker of mountains, let’s make that clear, it’s jejune and antiquated, what with the advent of motor vehicles, stairs, escalators, trams, funiculars, pulleys, trolleys, helicopters, and dozens of other ways to more efficiently ascend heights – all done without trouncing around muddy trails in cargo pants (pockets slopped excessively on by some modern fashion equivalent of Jackson Pollock), sporting a deeply delusional and solipsistic sense of oneness with nature/Yahweh/universe seemingly inherent to being slightly out of breath in the woods, taking an overwrought and showy gulp of water from a cargo pant-holstered canteen, forearm-wiping sweat from a scrunching brow, and exhaling a giant and self-indulgent sigh that conveys something roughly to that effect of “aahhh, yep, all part of the natural cycle of the world, just atoms and swirling dust.” But, I will say, it was a pretty great hike, what with the rain mist slowly trickling through the lush tree cover as we passed gushing waterfalls, gentle brooks babbling back and forth with Arual (it’s nice for her to have a friend), on our way to the highest peak in the city…….it was like I was just a small cog in the slow, perpetual spin of a moist and hairy-backed mother earth, or something like that.
Our tour was led by a man-child incompetent named Alex with a strong propensity to stumble during medium-grade inclines and to make essentially no sense at all. Alex was billed as bilingual in the brochure, which is true in the most cursory sense, but hardly at a level that would qualify him as a story-telling tour guide. Brazilian Portuguese is a difficult language. It sounds a bit like a drunk Russian (excuse the redundancy) trying to speak Spanish. The root words are somewhat similar, but more slavic, and the syllables sound like they are being dragged through a thick Baltic mud. I can only assume that Alex was indeed well versed in Portuguese, but his English was rudimentary at best. I also think he just made shit up most of the time, relying heavily on my palpable indifference. “Ah, si, sooo, zis tree, aqui…….OhKay, in eighteenz hundredz, all za peeoples in za vworld, all za peeople, zey wanted za wood cuz its sztrongezt wood in za whole vworld………….eh, szoo now, only zvree or zvour of zees trees left, cause of all za peeoples.” ………..Yeah, Alex, that’s what happened with the trees.
I have this tendency to visit places when such place’s most identifiable attraction is for whatever reason temporarily inaccessible. The Eiffel Tower closed for a structural defect, the Sistine Chapel closed for fresco renewal, Munch’s Scream (the most significant painting in Oslo, Norway) being on tour through the other cities of Europe through which I had just passed, or the middle school boys in Thailand away on spring break. You get the idea. Rio was no different. Its most significant tourist attraction and one of the recently anointed New Seven Wonders of the World, O Cristo Redentor, or Christ the Redeemer, the giant spread-armed Christ statue at the peak of Corcovado that watches the city all creepily over its sinful shoulder, like the freaky guy behind you in line at the stadium urinals that’s a little too close and paying a little too much attention to the duration and intensity of your stream, or an elderly priest watching you masturbate (that’s normal, right?), was of course under refurbishment and covered by large scaffolding the entire trip, and was unapproachable as a result of recent mudslides on its host mountain. The views were supposed to be amazing, but we saw plenty of those at Sugarloaf and elsewhere, so I wasn’t too put out. Plus, old Cristo really needed some refurbishing. The egomaniacal statue was vandalized just a week before we arrived by a brave young graffiti artist, now doubtless running for his life from Old Testament-y Catholics thirsting for blood sacrifice and the hefty reward offered by the mayor. Also, in a wondrous display of the tastiest irony, it was actually struck by lightning (graven images and what not) a couple of years ago and lost some divine fingers and a judgmental eyebrow that have since been reattached. Jesus and I have never really seen eye to eye on things in any case, what with his whole messiah complex, vague threats to send me to hell for not requiting his presumptuous handsy love and feigned sacrifice for my innate sins (is it really martyrdom when you by design return, almost immediately, as everlasting God?), an issue he really should have taken up with his dad/self. I will say, we have some hyper-religiosity in certain sectors of the U.S., but it would be pretty strange to have a ridiculously giant Jesus as our most identifiable symbol/monument, maintained by an ostensibly secular government. I dare say that might not go over so well in the modern Gomorrah that is San Francisco.
Religion aside, it’s not like I was exactly pining to elbow my way through a mass of tourist families with giant crinklingly-unfurled city maps splayed before their big-eyed dimwitted faces as they trample around in floppy meatloafy feet wrapped too tightly in tevas or reef sandals, scrapping, banging and writhing like clumsy scrappy cherubs in a scrappy chubby cherub race for the perfect picture of their entire extended family in front of whatever sight their Lonely Planet Rio tells them they absolutely must have a picture of themselves in front of. So we weren’t able to make it up to see Christ Refurbisher, that’s fine, if my imagination of it is any indication, I probably would have bitched and moaned the entire time in any case.
Instead, Alex then took us on a tour through Santa Teresa and Lapa, two loosely connected neighborhoods in Rio that have, so far, somehow maintained their respective cultural distinctiveness and largely avoided the gauche touristification that defines Zona Sul and the beaches. We ate lunch at a little hill-side restaurant in Santa Teresa, a small historical district lining the edge of the mountain that separates Corcovado and downtown, snuggled between warring shanty-slums on each side, and with great views of almost all of central Rio. Santa Teresa manages to be a quaint, despite its relative proximity to the rest of the city, and is earmarked by a rickety little tram that rickety-clinks up and down the mountain from the famous Convent of Santa Teresa on the cusp of Lapa. We ordered some traditional pork-based Santa Teresan fare and cold tall beers from a very sweaty and annoyed waiter/owner, whose apron testified colorfully to the slaughter of both a reluctant animal and a good bit of modern food service etiquette. A kindly elderly English couple ate lunch with us and told us of their extensive travels throughout the world, mentioning weirdly how the restaurants they loved best in the United States were Arby’s and The Sizzler. I would have been insulted if they weren’t so damn cute with their over-enunciated diphthongs, glottalized consonants, toothy-mouthed colonial wonder and Hugh Granty hair, somehow both floppy and foppish at once. I just wanted to hug them, kiss their fair-skinned foreheads and ask what it was like to be so adorable and say ridiculous things all the time, but Arual convinced me against it.
After lunch, we headed down to the mountain to Lapa, easily the most interesting and eclectic part of Rio. Lapa was bohemian, soulful, and self-satisfied, but also rundown and frenetic, and possessed of an indefatigable seediness in a way that feels well-earned, rather than through neglect or inactivity. This is the primary destination for intellectuals, dancers, artists, gypsies and party-seekers in Rio. It’s not much to look at during the day, as the roads and sidewalks are a mess, pedestrian traffic is dense and chaotic, the buildings are coated with a ubiquitous yellowish grunge slopped up from generations of well-tread street parties, and historical relevance takes a back seat to the more esoteric vibe of the area, which is better visited for the Samba, caipirinhas and all-night debauchery than its famous 400-year old Arcos da Lapa aqueduct, which at the end of the day (or really any time of the day) is still just an unused aqueduct. But, after the sun drops, the broken cobblestone streets fill with dancing cariochas, old men in cabbie hats playing inexplicable card games on inverted paint tubs, cheap art (both created and sold), musicians with tiny guitars playing samba riffs, annoying Australian hostel-ites searching relentlessly for weed, ad-hoc kiosks selling canned beer, working girls and guys and pretty much anything else a young super-sexy man with an ostensible girlfriend passed out in a distant hotel room could possibly want. All in all, a pretty nice little day in Rio.