Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Our arrival in Rio de Janeiro: Santa Teresa and the Ipanema Hippie Fair

On Sunday, July 6, we flew from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro for our last few days in Rio.  I had been unable to get us a game in Rio, but it seemed inconceivable to have a substantial vacation in Brazil and NOT see Rio.  I figured that at least I’d have a chance to  visit the Maracana, Rio’s most famous soccer stadium, but apparently all tours of the Maracana had been cancelled until after the World Cup final was played there after our scheduled departure – bummer!

I had arranged for us to stay at Casa Cool Beans, a bed-and-breakfast hosted by ex-pat Americans in the artsy Santa Teresa neighborhood, walking distance from downtown Rio.  We arrived there by taxi at about 3 PM, and one of ther co-owners, Lance, was there to greet us.  In my communications with him after we made our reservations, he had been insistent on learning our exact time of arrival, pushing hard in a way that was slightly off-putting, but in retrospect I understood the reason — although we were arriving in a Sunday, when he would normally be keeping short office hours, he wanted to be on hand to meet us personally to deliver a rap about how the B&B worked, and to talk about safety precautions in Rio.  He had a rap on where we could walk safely in the daytime, and where safely at night, and how to comport ourselves when outside those safe areas so as not to look like a tourist just begging to be mugged; for example, in some places, walking around with a DSLR camera slung over your shoulder is an invitation for a mugging; so you carry around a plastic shopping bag, and when in those areas, you stick the camera in the bag so you blend into the crowd better.  He also dispensed some travel advice some travel advice for our first day;  indeed, throughout our stay at Casa Cool Beans, Lance and to a lesser extent his partner David were on hand to provide ideas about what to do in Rio and where to do it; each morning he would alight on each traveling family or couple to talk about their plans for the day, to make suggestions and indeed reservations where appropriate.

Casa Cool Beans was easily the nicest place we stayed in Brazil.  Nancy and I had an ample room with a sleeping loft for Joe, entering from a pleasant patio on the entry level of the B&B.  Our patio was full of dense vegetation,

and the walls were colorfully painted in street art style by a local artist (we learned later that when  the B&B was just starting about three years ago, they exchanged housing for art with someone who was just starting out – we could see similar handiwork on walls around the Santa Teresa neighborhood).

Breakfast included the most varied array of fruits we had seen,

as well as some starches and eggs cooked to order.  There was a nifty sign in the kitchen area explaining to the staff phonetically how to translate guests’ breakfast requests;

for me, it served as a reminder that my pronunciation of some of the Portuguese vowels and dipthongs was still a bit off.

Breakfast was taken on the third floor of the B&B, the top floo for guests (it was our impression and Lance and David lived up on the fourth floor), overlooking a small swimming pool (too small for swimming, really just enough to fit bodies wanting to be wet)

on our arrival Lance had been apologetic that the pool was being repaired; I confess that I had not noticed that there was a pool when I was making reservations, and I can’t imagine how we would have had time to use one given how much there was to see and how little time we had to see it.

By the time we arrived it was a bit late to see a museum, but Lance suggested that we might like to visit the “Ipanema hippie fair”: a Sunday-only arts and crafts fair in a park a couple of blocks from the beach.  Lance had told Sam and Nafisa that the artist who had painted a work in their room which they quite liked would be exhibiting there, and he optimistically described the fair as being a fifteen minute cab ride away.  This visit might have worked out but the crowd was  insistent on having a late lunch, which we took at Nega Tereza, a small-family dining place that was less than five minute walk from our B&B.  They had a nice feijoada available on Sunday, better than what we had eaten for lunch in Salvador the day before; in fact, we ended up having lunch at Nega Tereza on three of the four days that we stayed in Rio.

From there, we loaded into a pair of taxis for the trip to Ipanema – but the fifteen minute ride took us nearly an hour considering the heavy traffic – we might well have been much better off taking a cab down to the subway and then taking the subway to Ipanema.  In fact, the distances between tourist attractions in the city were so great that in the end I had to scale back my expectations  about just how many different things we could see and do during our few days in Rio.

By the time we reached Ipanema it was 5:30 PM and getting dark – a feature of equatorial life that was hard to get used to, not having daylight last long into the evening on a summer night – and many of the graphic artists were taking down their paintings.  We looked at those that remained, as well as at some of the crafts,

then headed out for a look at the Ipanema beach scene.  We had agreed that we would have a beach day in Rio as we had had in Salvador, but this ended up being our only time on a Rio beach.

Despite the dark, there were still plenty of swimmers in the water

In the distance to the right, we could see the twinkling lights of the Vidigal favela, running up a hillside from the far end of the Leblon beach (seemingly an extension of Ipanema, divided from it only by a canal). 

One of the features of Rio life that I found amazing when I arrived is that what would have seemed to me the prime real estate in town – the hillsides overlooking the city and its beaches – is occupied by its poorest communities, the favelas.  We were to learn much more about the historical reasons for that distribution of housing on our final day in Rio when we took a guided tour of two of the favelas.

On our left was the Arpoador rock, a small peninsula that marks the boundary between Ipanema and Copacabana beaches;

we walked up to Arpoador and found it dotted with people.

Instead of dining in Ipanema, we caught a pair of cabs back to Santa Teresa.  Our driver really had no idea where our hotel was located, and even though we had an exact street address from a hotel card (which included a free beer or caiparinha at Bar do Gomes down the street), the driver still could nto figure out the location.  The driver pulled out a fascinating, very dogeared paper back book that listed every street in Rio – not keyed to some sort of map, but rather including some numerical codes that I could not decipher.  But this still did not get us where we needed to go.  The driver headed up to the Santa Teresa neighborhood and then asked one person after another where to do.  Ultimately, he dropped us off  not at our hotel but at the Santa Teresa cultural center; we found our way back from there.  Lance suggested after we had this problem the next day as well that we just tell the drivers that we wanted to go to Largo do  Guimar√£es, the main square of Santa Teresa; this was good advice because every driver knew how to get there, and then we could either walk or direct the driver how to drive from there.  

Here is a mural near that square celebrating Brazil’s first World Cup title

Maybe it was because of the difficulty of locating streets, but maybe also the cobblestones, but we found that there were some cabbies who simply refused to accept fares to Santa Teresa.  In a city where the standard advice to tourists is to take taxis at night to avoid being exposed on streets where outsiders are less safe, this was a bit of a disadvantage to staying in the neighborhood.

But other advantages outweighed that problem.  Santa Teresa itself was a pleasantly funky neighborhood of cobblestoned streets.  Breaking with the general tendency that it is the favelas that occupy the hills overlooking Rio, Santa Teresa included both a hilltop and a hillside, with many streets running up and down the hillside to which the neighborhood clung, a bit reminiscent of some parts of San Francisco.  There were many distinctively colored houses

with  decorative mailboxes

After having spent my college years in Portland, I have become partial to places which, unlike the Long Island of my youth, are not flat.  One of the advantages of the hilliness is that not only could one look up and get a nice view of the Christ Redemptor at Corcovado

but there were sweeping views of Rio down below to be had between many of the buildings

sometimes with another height in the background

The main drag of the neighborhood follows street car tracks and is lined for several blocks with restaurants, craft stores, and boutiques; we enjoyed browsing the craft places and even added to our collection of Brazilian souvenirs there.   The walls were loaded with street art; there was some graffiti in the form of words and lettering, but much of it was really nice graphic arts.  (Some examples are here, though after I am done blogging our trip I have in mind to post a separate post with street art from around Brazil, as I did when we got back from Buenos Aires a couple of years ago.

Even many of the light poles got decorated

The street car line mentioned above actually connects Santa Teresa to the downtown area; in reading about the neighborhood I had got the impression that the streets down were so steep that you really wanted the cable car to get up and down.   The cable car (“bonde”) was widely listed as a tourist attraction, even though it has been out of order since there an accident a few years ago.  The line was supposed to be repaired in time for the World Cup – one of many unfulfilled government promises of improvements for the locals.  We saw this nice neighborhood protest against the unkept promise

The Portuguese language sign means, “we want our bonde.”  In the end, the streets heading down to the Centro were not nearly so steep as the truly steep streets in San Francisco; rather, the streets were switchbacked enough that cabs had little difficulty getting up and down, and eventually we found it was not a difficult walk.

After getting back from Ipanema on our day of arrival, we walked along the main drag looking for dinner.  We did not find the place I had noted in the Lonely Planet, but ended up having a nice dinner at Portella, good food with a nice singer accompanied by a guitar player.  I should perhaps not say that the dinner was nice for all of us – that night Joe came down with a violent case of food poisoning that left him so devastated that he stayed behind for our entire first day of sightseeing in Rio, and rearranging our schedule somewhat so that Joe would not miss out on both Corcovado and Sugarloaf.  We all had shared of everybody else's dishes, but from the timing of the onset it is hard to say that it could have been anyplace besides Portella that was the source.

It was the only serious ill effect any of us suffered our entire time in Brazil.

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