I’m here for a conference but had a bit of time this weekend to explore before it starts.
It’s not enough time to properly learn about the city, but I’m having a fantastic time and thought I’d share a few random disconnected thoughts.
Weather. I should get the cliched observation out of the way first. It’s hot and sunny. Really sunny. I’m regularly covering myself in SPF50 and still ending up more than a little pink. Perhaps I’m just not used to this “being outside” thing.
It’s hilly. Actually, they’re called hills, but that doesn’t do it justice. The bus heading up to Corcovado went up one bit that was so steep I was convinced it would roll back down.
Rio isn’t a place for people who don’t like heights. Even ignoring people offering me helicopter rides or friends suggesting hang gliding, the big tourist attraction is getting a cable car to the top of Sugar Loaf mountain. The views are apparently amazing, but I thought it looked far too scary and gave it a miss.
Despite the weather and the hills, running seems popular. I saw loads of people out running. Lunatics. 😉
There was a big running event down by Ipanema, with some of the roads by the beach closed for the event. I didn’t stay around to see much, but I did see volunteers handing out bananas to runners. I like that… better than the energy bar things and jelly beans they hand out at the Great South.
I like to rent a car when working away, because it gives you freedom to explore. I’m glad I didn’t for this trip. The roads are chaotic. It’s like some places I’ve been in the Middle East, where you’re responsible for accidents that happen in front of you. It means drivers don’t look or care what you’re doing if you’re behind them. And they do anything to get in front, where they don’t need to worry about you, even if that means cutting you off. In fact, normally by cutting you off.
Lane discipline doesn’t really seem to be a thing, either. I think the white lines on the roads are largely decorative, as the two taxis I’ve taken, as well as a lot of the other traffic I’ve seen, seem to happily straddle lanes or drift between them. Hard to blame them too much – lanes start and end seemingly at random. At one point, a three lane road we were on changed to two lanes on a sharp corner. That was fun.
Both of my taxi drivers had mounted televisions on their dashboard, and watched TV while they drove. The taxi driver who brought me from the airport got bored with his programme so started channel hopping while doing 60mph on bendy roads. The taxi driver I got from the bus station today seemed more interested in watching the Formula One on his TV then his own driving.
Basically, I’m saying stay off the roads. It’s nuts.
This is all sounding very negative, but I’m having a great time so I should say something nice. I was going to say that everyone here is very helpful, friendly and welcoming. That would be true, but I can’t think of a country I’ve been to where people weren’t helpful and friendly. I think people are just friendly.
Language has been a bit of a challenge. The level of English I’ve come across has been low. Most locals I’ve met either speak no English at all, or only a few words. I don’t mean to sound like a ridiculous British tourist, because however bad their English is, it’s still a thousand times better than my Portuguese. But on a practical level, it makes for a fun challenge, trying to make myself understood through a variety of mimes, gestures and pointing.
And it’s different to what often happens to me when travelling where I try and use the few local phrases I’ve managed to learn, only for bemused locals to reply to me in English rather than put up with my butchering of their language.
I haven’t seen many locals with smartphones. People I saw with mobiles were using simple feature phones to make a voice call, and put them back in their pocket after. I know I’m mobile-obsessed, but on a bus for example, in the UK you see people with phones in their hands. I didn’t see anyone use a smartphone on any of the buses I went on. I don’t know if it’s a cultural thing, a fear of mugging thing, or if smartphone ownership isn’t very high, but whatever the reason, I felt like I’d stand out if I started fiddling with my mobile.
The one thing I really wanted to see while I was here was the statue of Christ the Redeemer. It’s the big iconic landmark for Rio, if not all of Brazil. I’m glad I did. It’s an amazing sight.
There is a tram that goes from the bottom of Corcovado Hill, all the way up to the statue. But even though I arrived really early on a fairly quiet day, there was still a queue of over an hour just to buy a ticket let alone get on the tram itself.
I got a bus up some of the way and walked the rest. Even the sections I walked took hours. It’s a very long way.
The views as you head up are stunning.
You think that when you get to the top and stand by the statue that it’ll be a deep, meaningful moment.
But it was packed with tourists of all nationalities taking photos (mostly of each other, doing the same pose as the statue with it in the background), and people trying to sell them souvenirs.
It reminded me a bit of being at the Pyramids, where you expect it to be all about the history, but then you end up getting hassled by people trying to sell you tat and there’s a KFC and Pizza Hut in the background. (Seriously).
It’s not as bad as that, but it was so busy that I didn’t hang around long. The best views of the statue are the ones you get on the way up the hill, where it’s quiet and you get to enjoy the views in peace.
I didn’t go anywhere near the city centre. I spent the rest of the weekend in towns along the beach: Leblon, Ipanema and Copacabana. Yup… how many songs have I had in my head today?
Miles and miles of perfect beautiful beaches. Beaches to swim, beaches to surf, beaches to play volleyball… if you’re a beach person, you’d be in the right place. I’m not really a beach person (much to the dismay of my kids) so didn’t stay long. But it was a pretty place to wander around.
I found the carnival, which was cool. Well… the carnival wasn’t on. But I found where it happens. It’s a long straight strip of tarmac for the parade to go down with tiered seating on either side. It was more impressive than I’m making it sound, honest.
You can tell they’ve got the World Cup and Olympics coming up. I saw a lot of building and improvements work going on – armies of guys in orange jump suits working hard. Someone I met by the Maracana stadium told me that they’re working day and night at the moment. Apparently it needs to be ready by the end of this month.
I didn’t get great photos. Partly due to my general photographic incompetence, but also because I left my digital SLR at home. Instead I brought an old small digital camera I could keep in my pocket. This was because, with few exceptions, the reaction from everyone I told I was coming to Rio was to warn me about being mugged or robbed. One of my more conscientious friends even sent me helpful links to news stories from this month and last month about rapes in Rio, one of the victims of which was a tourist. (Thanks, Andy).
By the time I set off, I was properly paranoid, so I’ve been travelling light. Even the iPad mini (which normally goes with me everywhere) stayed in the hotel safe. Despite my paranoia, I haven’t felt unsafe. There is a big security and police presence. You’re rarely far from a security guard, police car or check point, and fences and barriers are everywhere, so it’s obviously a thing. But I do wish I’d brought a decent camera after all. I think it would’ve been okay.
I’ve written way more than I intended, so I’ll stop rambling now. In short, if you get a chance to come to Rio, jump at it. It’s brilliant.