Anyone who has a vague grasp of geography and who has been following my travels on this blog will realise from the title that I’m skimming over Sao Paulo. No disrespect intended, but it’s a city a bit like London or Barcelona. You really need to know someone there to get the best out of it. We don’t. So we didn’t…
We were only there for 2 days, but we did manage to go on a walking tour downtown. And here it differs from London or Barcelona. Because Paulistas have a habit of knocking down all of their heritage buildings every 50 years or so in favour of more concrete high-rises. So it’s more a tour of what used to be there… Our young, energetic tour guide lost his audience in The Mack almost immediately, when the first buildings of interest he pointed out were 1960s architectural horrors. We ditched the tour an hour in to get lunch and a beard-trim (The Mack, not me). Sorry SP, you lost us.
But Rio is something else. It’s one of those cities that has a tangible flavour. I can’t say what that flavour is, but damn sure it involves a ton of sugar and some cachaca. It’s sweet and sticky and it sends you a little bit crazy.
Some people say that it’s the geography that gives Rio its vibe. Mountains and beaches and sun and sky.
I’m not sure. That gives a false impression of space and freedom – most Cariocas live in small apartments, lots of people crammed into a building. And you only have to see the physics-defying favelas, coloured boxes stacked precariously on the mountain sides, to know that space is scarce in the city. The outdoor lifestyle is definitely part of it – people like to get out, to socialise, to see and be seen. But they work hard too – Rio ain’t cheap and most seem to have to graft for a living.
No. What defines Rio is an attitude. It’s a conscious, collective commitment to full-life living. Rio, for me, is a city of hustlers. And I mean that in a good way. There’s a sense that you could do anything there. The framework of the city leaves gaps to be exploited. It says “You want to give something a go? Go right ahead. Don’t expect any support, but if you make it work then we’ll celebrate you to kingdom come.” I have it on good authority that it’s the place where global nomads go to settle down, because the people there understand the itch. Everyone in Rio is a little restless.
I loved it. The tiny studio apartment in Lapa that we rented (and our fabulous hosts). The every-Friday night monster street party that makes Notting Hill carnival look like a Hampshire summer fete. The samba bands outside bars in downtown on an average Monday night, attracting hundreds of locals (and a handful of gringos doing embarrassing-dad dancing). Getting your 5-a-day in the form of caipifrutas (avoid passion fruit – maracuja – delicious, but gets stuck in the straw). The strange anti-fashion all-occasion uniform of cheap shorts and flip-flops, contrasted with the country-wide obsession for straight, sleek hair (the ratio of products in any pharmacy are 20% medicines, 78% frizz-taming products and 2% other). The fact that everyone is mixed and more beautiful for it. The dalek-inspired cathedral. The buzzing beaches, even mid-week in Autumn. The hilarity of cariocas’ gym-junkie addiction, made necessary by a diet that consists almost entirely of deep-fried orange foods.
If you go, then my advice is stay in Lapa or Santa Teresa (Lapa if you’re an urbanite, Sta Teresa if you want a bit of quiet). Real life, not the euro-beach sanitised version you get in Copacabana or Ipanema. Just know that if you arrive in Lapa after dark, you will most likely be scared. It’ll pass by day 3. Don’t think that everyone is out to rob you or kill you. Some might be, but don’t take it personally. Most times guys will just get a little frisking from a group of hard-faced girls – in The Mack’s case, he only had beer in his pockets, so he got the better deal. Drink in local bars – don’t let your girlfriend tell you that you’re not welcome there. Try not to gawp at the working girls – yes they look incredible, but they have a job to do and it’s rude to stare.
I’m sure Rio Scenarium is great at weekends, when the local samba stars are out in force and the queues go round the block. But on a Tuesday night, it resembled a night on a cruise liner – middle aged Swiss physicists, a Joe Pesci-alike dancefloor demon and a pneumatic, second-time-around saucy couple who illustrated why Brazil is renowned for being the plastic surgery capital of the world.
If you do one tourist thing, then the cable car to Sugar Loaf is actually pretty cool (she says, still whimpering). But cut out the bottom bit. Take the trail up Morro de Urca and, like The Mack, as you reach the summit: bare-chested, sweating, cursing and a bit stinky, suddenly find yourself confronted with the tourist masses. Maybe give it a few minutes in the breeze before you get into the cable car…