It was only once in Rio de Janeiro that I realized I was sad to leave Salvador. I liked it there, even though I was almost glad to escape the upcoming Carnival craziness—pré-Carnival was enough chaotic fun for us.
We landed at Rio de Janeiro—Galeão International Airport, not Santos Dumont Airport with the amazing approach. I can’t report on the flight—I noticed Avianca didn’t drop tons of snacks on my lap but I was catching on some sleep anyway. The previous night had been short, thanks to a combination of pré-Carnival party and blog article writing.
I started to feel a bit claustrophobic in the taxi from the airport to the hotel in Catete. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be way too many favelas growing on the hills, way too many humans stuck between the South Atlantic Ocean and the mountains.
“This is one thing I don’t like in Rio,” I noted when the taxi slowed down around Flamingo. “There are gates and fences everywhere as if we were caged urban animals.”
In Rio, most buildings are fenced. This is mostly a psychological defence mechanism because I’m guessing it wouldn’t take much to break through the typical metal-pole fence and most doormen spent their time on their cellphones, but Cariocas are very paranoid about security. I can’t blame them—Rio is a hell of a lot better now but I wouldn’t call it a safe city. So, doors are locked, windows are closed and it felt weird after Salvador, where everything was so open, with balconies, rooftops, etc. Okay, until the city was boarded up, I guess.
Our hotel room in Catete added to my claustrophobia—we were on the eighth floor without a view.
We checked in and I suddenly felt rushed and overwhelmed when I realized that with the time change between Salvador and Rio, we had lost a precious hour and we had tons of things to do. We had to find a hotel for the weekend—a daunting task with Carnival starting—, a laundromat, get some info about Carnival events and many other small tasks that weren’t so difficult but would take time and patience because Rio is a big place and during Carnival, absolutely nothing works as planned.
“Let’s go! Copa or Centro?”
Feng and I know Rio de Janeiro very well. This is one of these cities where you can drop me off anywhere and I won’t be lost. Okay, I don’t know every single bairro in Rio—I’m most familiar with Centro, Gloria, Catete, Flamingo, Botafogo, Copacabana and Ipanema.
“Wait… I think there’s a good place for empadas in the next street… I’m going buy some.”
This is one thing I love about travelling—when I explore a city, I store the data somewhere in my brain and I can retrieve it when needed. I wish there was a game where you’d be dropped off in a city with tasks to accomplish—find the subway station, the best bakery, the hotel, the tourist info, the mall with clean toilets. I may win it if it took place in Santiago, Buenos Aires, Rio, Porto Alegre, Montevideo, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Sydney and many other cities I had the chance to visit. Just don’t drop me off in Paris. I’m hopeless in Paris. I’d be asking Japanese tourists for directions.
But finding the empadas place didn’t cheer me up.
“It’s too late for Centro, no? Everything is going to be closed.”
“Copa, then. But there’s the tunnel…”
“Tunnel of death it is.”
What we jokingly call the “tunnel of death” is the Túnel Marquês Pôrto, also known as Túnel Novo because at one point, in 1949, it replaced the Túnel Engenheiro Coelho Cintra. It links Botafogo and Copacabana. The only way to avoid the tunnel is to take the subway, which is, after all, spending time in creepy underground tunnels as well.
Feng hates this tunnel.
I mean, I get it, it’s a tunnel. I’d rather walk… huh, anywhere but inside a tunnel. But I’m not particularly scared of it. There’s a sidewalk, so traffic isn’t an issue. And most of the time, there’s a police car parked at one end or the other so you probably won’t get killed inside.
But yeah, it’s a long and dark tunnel with deafening traffic noise amplified by echo and you can barely breathe inside.
And so we crossed the tunnel of death and arrived in Copacabana, where a cranky Mark claimed he was cold even though it was 28ºC, so shut up already.
I paused for a second. I’ve been to Copacabana many times but it’s always bigger than I remember. Not only the beach itself is long—4 kilometres—but it’s wide, and so is Avenida Atlântica—6 lanes that are a pain in the ass to cross, much like Avenida 9 de Julio in Buenos Aires.
In most of the neighbourhoods, streets are narrow and it feels cramped, as if Rio city planners designed Avenida Atlântica, and then ran out of room, much like Mark when he writes a word—the first three letters are huge and then the last ones are barely legible because “MOOOMMY! THE PAPER ISN’T LONG ENOUGH!”
“I don’t know why… I feel a bit low…,” I said as we were walking past posto 2.
“I don’t know why either,” Feng replied. “We’re in Rio. One of these ‘eventually we have to go back to Canada moments’?”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “I’m happier when I travel. But it’s just… I don’t know, I feel out of sync. It’s hard to adjust to Rio after Salvador.”
I couldn’t find any good food—everything was too soft, the bread, the filling, the sweets and I was craving something crunchy. I miss the ubiquitous Latino combination of ham and cheese. For some reason, Brazilian stuff their food with chicken or palm hearts. The sidewalks were too packed, I missed our hotel room with the balcony and a microwave, Rio was too big.
We were both tired, which was probably the worst moment to tackle a pressing issue—the fact we didn’t have a hotel room for the weekend. We started arguing and we argued more the following morning, still without a solution and still tired.
I took a break. If I could have gotten a massage, I would have, but instead, I had my legs waxed—it’s a cheap and popular service here.
Twenty minutes later, I felt better. I had accomplished something. I met the guys on the beach where they were, as promised, at Posto 3 and Feng pretended to see the difference with my legs.
Second miracle of the day—I put on the 10 reais ($3) bikini bought in Salvador and I realized it was a perfect fit. Lucky pick, I hadn’t tried it. When I think of all these hours I wasted as a teen agonizing in the fitting room… Life is easier when you stop giving a damn about having a perfect body.
I hadn’t planned to swim in Copacabana, but suddenly, it made sense to do so. The water was perfect and the sun hadn’t set yet—what excuse did I have?
Once it got dark, the guys took the subway and I walked back from Copacabana to Botafogo, which took me close to two hours with numerous stops along the way.
We’ll be okay, I thought, crossing the tunnel of death once again on the way back. Rio gets a lot easier once you just embrace it.