I set my compass for Rio de Janeiro on 26 December. I had already had a splash (literally) of Brazil on my day trip from Puerto Iguazu (Argentina) to Foz Iguazu where I had taken a $10-a-minute helicopter ride over the breathtaking Falls and spent a couple of hours in the wonderful Bird Park filled with Brazil’s most exotic birds.
Rio is an entirely different kettle of fish. Nothing I’d been told, nor the preconceptions I had, came close to the Rio in the flesh – of which there is no shortage.
Within 24 hours my kaleidoscopic take on Brazilians was African-drumming, Samba-dancing, all-night-partying, caipirinha-drinking, beach-going, bottom-showing, life-loving. A world away from their more sophisticated – some would say arrogant, Argentinian neighbours, Cariocas (name given to people living in Rio), felt more akin to Colombians but with a strong African, as opposed to Caribbean, heritage and of course they speak the Portugese which, having perfected my Spanish I found impossible to master.
My first full day was textbook. I spent the morning in Rochina Favela which, with 180,000 residents is Rio’s biggest favela. It’s not somewhere tourists are advised to go on their own so I arranged to meet Pablo (aka Peanut) Amenodim who is the big cheese of Rochina, having dedicated 25 years of his life to the community. He negotiated to get electricity and clean water, initiated motorbike taxis to get people up the hills, worked with the police and cartels to stop corruption and started offering walking tours to open the neighbourhood up.
He generously gave me 4 hours of his time to explain how the favela functions. We walked through the labyrinth of twisting, narrow alleyways crammed with small homes. Whilst there is indeed fresh water there are still open streams running with household waste (washing water not sewage), piles of garbage, dog and cat poo everywhere and a smell which at time was wretch-making.
Over a typical Afro-Brazilian lunch, which Peanut shouted me, he told me that employment for older people is high because there are so many markets, shops, cafes and small businesses in the area and there is also continual construction work. However, amongst school-leavers employment is not so good. Many young have no work and, because there is no social security (government is broke), they have to rely on family or else resort to living on the street, with all the inherent dangers of drug, alcohol and sexual abuse.
Education is free and literacy and numeracy is high. Health care is also free and I saw many vaccination clinics though dengue, malaria and zika still claim lives.
Everyone I asked, told me they are happy living in the favela. I’ve visited enough slums over the years to know that happiness isn’t about pre-conceived western standards but even so, there are times when it’s hard to understand how they can really be happy.
Leaving Rochina I headed to Ipanema Beach, where I was far from alone. In fact I could barely see the sand. It seems when the sun shines, which is pretty much all year round, Cariocas (Residents of Rio) head for the beach. I had the most fantastic time people-watching. I have never seen so much female flesh on display, with often just the tiniest piece of material covering the boobs and dental-floss thin material for the bum. What I loved was that there were bodies of every age, shape and size on display and everyone seemed comfortable in their own skin, with no one looking at anyone else in a critical way. How refreshing is that. Feeling over dressed in my traditional bikini I hot-footed it to the shops to buy something more minuscule and enjoyed the freedom, taking care not to burn my cheeks!
Riding home on the subway was hilarious. The occasional person in work clothes but the vast majority in swimwear and flip flops smelling of a mixture of sun cream, salt water and sweat. Just about as far removed as can be from the grey, drab Jubilee Line commute I’m used to.
Another first was ‘women-only’ carriages from 6-9am and 5-8pm and an announcement which says: ‘being a good citizen means observing the regulations. Women deserve to be respected so do your duty.’ Hear, hear!
The heat in Rio was beginning to get to me so I did what the 19th century Imperial court of Don Pedro II did, and retired to Petropolis, where the slightly cooler air was a welcome relief. It’s a charming horse-drawn carriage type of place with stately buildings flanking tree-lined avenues, separated by a canal with ornate bridges. I spent the lions share of the day enjoying the immaculately preserved Imperial Palace and its gardens. I skated through the rooms in cloth slippers giving the floors a good polish whilst soaking up the exhibits, imagining myself living in Portuguese dominated Brazil. The most moving display cabinet housed the document signed by Queen Isabella in 1888 granting freedom to all remaining slaves.
Back in Rio it was time to start gearing up for New Year’s Eve. I had a practice run on 30th, cruising the bars in Lapa, trying different flavoured caipirinhas (passion fruit and strawberry being favourites) and having a bit of a bop in a couple of live music clubs. I went home with aching hips from all that samba wriggling but the intake of cachasa helped numb it somewhat.
31 January is a weird day in Rio. The main streets are deserted and all museums are closed. The only people I saw were fellow tourists milling around open air sites. Churches were open so I visited a few of them; the super-ornate San Bento monastery built in 1540 and the modern cathedral being the highlights. Ugly brutalist concrete on the outside the conical cathedral with its four x 60m tall stained glass windows is stunning.
I took a moment to sit and listen to the first and only Christmas carol I heard, Silent Night played on the harp. As the music enveloped me, I remembered that a year ago I was sitting in the Shwedagon Padoga in Yangon, Myanmar – again escaping the heat. A whole year and what a year. I felt fortunate to have met so many wonderful people and enjoyed so many incredible experiences and full of love for this amazing world we live in. I began to feel very emotional as I thought about my children who I would be seeing in 3 weeks time and my grandchildren who I would be kissing for the first time. I felt truly blessed.
And so to the celebrations televised the world over, New Year’s Eve on Copacabana beach. Tradition dictates dressing in white (new beginnings) and or yellow (prosperity). I decided on white as did the friends I went with. We bought flower garlands for our hair and roses to offer to Lemanjá, the goddess of the ocean.
The beach was a mass of hawkers, families camping out, a stage for live music (usually 3 stages but the city is broke post Olympics), helicopters, strobe lights and massive cruise liners in the bay. Despite the frenzied activity it lacked the party atmosphere I had anticipated. The music wasn’t very upbeat so no one was dancing and there was no other entertainment, so people just stood around waiting for midnight. The fireworks were launched off the ships high into the sky, reflected in the water and, whilst cutbacks restricted the display to 12 minutes, it was awesome. The best part of the evening was walking fully clothed into the sea to offer up the flowers and then joining hundreds of people in jumping seven good luck waves. The waves are actually quite high which means getting totally wet. Riding home on the subway at 2am damp and bedraggled ranks as one of my least attractive 1st of January looks.
16 days left and undecided what to do. Quite by chance I picked up a book in my posada which solved my dilemma. A eight hour bus ride from Rio is the city of Belo Horizonte in the gold mining state of Minas Gerias. The city itself is pleasant enough. There is a terrific central market selling everything imaginable; rabbits, birds and fish next to pots and pans and loofas; cheese and meats next to wicker ware, linens and cachaça; nuts and dried fruit stalls also selling body building drinks and lots of small bars selling shots of beer (yes really)and tapas. Belo also has several excellent museums and a striking blue and white tiled lakeside church designed by Brazil’s mos famous architect, Oscar Niemeyer.
However, I had my eye on two places, both about 90 mins drive outside of town. The first was Congonhas where sculptor Aleijadinho’s 12 life-size Old Testament figures – each carved out of a single block of soapstone, stand gracefully in front of the town’s Basilica. What’s so incredible is that, despite Aleijadinho contracting leprosy, resulting in the loss of his fingers and toes and the use of his lower legs, he not only completed these carvings but many more throughout the province.
My second destination afforded me what is probably the most enjoyable cultural experience of my life. Inhotim – the world’s largest open air contemporary art space, set in 500,000 acres of picture postcard countryside has 23 pavillions each dedicated to an individual artist’s work, a further 23 open air sculptures/artworks, five botanical gardens and two lakes, all beautifully landscaped.
The park and the art therein is owned by former mining magnate Bernardo Paz who, in just 10 years has brought together art and nature to take your breath away. Luckily there are golf buggies to ferry those who elect to pay (that’ll be me) to the further reaches of the park. I also hired a guide – just one English speaking guide for the whole park, that’s how unknown it is! At one extremity there are Doug Aitken and Matthew Barney pavillions, another has Chris Burden’s enormous Beam Drop sculpture and a third has a vast pavillion housing Brazilian Psicoativa Tunga’s works. Every path leads to a gallery or artwork, the most magical ones hidden in the woods or by water.
Almost all the artists were unknown to me so I enjoyed discovering them, and the collection is constantly evolving, a new pavillion having recently opened and more planned. I would love to go back in a few years to revisit the old works and discover the new ones.
Risking an overdose of culture and heritage my final stop in Minas Gerias was the 18th century gold mining city of Ouro Preto. Boasting the first UNESCO listing in Brazil it’s a mass of cobbled streets and fine historic houses (now mostly museums) and, if you stand in the right place you can see 13 baroque churches dotted throughout the city.
I booked a guide to visit the historic sites but he had his own agenda because I found myself on a ‘magical mystery tour’ with two Brazilian women and a Belgium Erasmus student hiking through the national park, swimming in waterfalls, eating lunch in a local person’s home, sneaking inside the only black people’s church (despite there being 100,000 slaves working in the mines mid 1700s), singing on the stage of the oldest working theatre in South America and sampling a variety of fruit caipirinha (again!). I think there was some history in there somewhere. Either way it was a memorable day.
10 days left and both my body and brain said kick back, relax, do nothing, so that’s what I did…..more or less.
I made my way down south from Rio to the coastal town of Paraty (pronounced Parachee) where I chilled on the beaches, cruised around the fjords, wandered the cobbled, carless streets and danced in the open air in the heat of the night.
Finally I tipped up on Ilha Grande where again there are no cars and nor are there cobblestones, just sandy paths. I found a lovely quiet hostal one road back from the port. I bought fresh fish and cooked simple meals, walked barefoot through the forests to deserted white sand beaches where I read and slept and swam in crystal clear waters. I went diving on a swanky speed boat finding delicate pink sparkly seahorses and flying gurnard with iridescent wings like dragonflies. I got drenched on a two-hour walk back from a beach in a biblical deluge but also enjoyed sitting on the dock watching the sunset each evening.
Ilha Grande was the perfect place to prepare me for going home because it gave me time and space to reflect on everything I had experienced over the last 12 months rather than rushing to another ‘place of interest’ or ‘must do activity’. But it too had to come to an end.
Packing my bags for the last time felt very weird. I still had my hiking boots and 2 pairs of hiking trousers but everything else had been replaced – several times. As it was, I left almost everything behind choosing to fill my case with a dozen pairs of Havaianas flip flops to give my kids and co.
On board the boat back to the mainland someone asked how long I’d been on holiday for. “364 days” I replied “and now I’m going home.”
And so to the airport. I presented myself at the BA checkin desk and promptly burst into tears. I cried again when the pilot welcomed us on board and continued to cry as I watched Bridget Jones’s Baby right until touchdown.
It is difficult to explain the emotions of seeing loved ones after such a long absence. My oldest and dearest friend met me at Heathrow and it was wonderful to hug her. Seeing my beautiful daughter and her gorgeous baby was a surreal moment as I hugged them and showered them with kisses and cried at the sheer joy of having a granddaughter.
By the time I’d seen my elder son and his fiancée and my younger son, his partner and their tiny baby boy my heart was fit to burst. Oh, and being reunited with my cat was lovely too – not to mention a blessed relief for my brother!
London in January is cold and grey, and whilst it’s going to take some time for me to get used to being back, there truly is no place like home.