Imagine spotting a stunning chick or a very hot guy in a dark nightclub. You hook up, it’s exciting. Then you go on a proper date—no sex, all talk—and realize they have baggage. It’s not necessarily the kind that’s an automatic deal-breaker but a yellow flag you can’t overlook.
This is what going to Rio de Janeiro feels like—there’s more to it than meet the eyes and the city takes you on an emotional rollercoaster ride.
It was hot, stuffy, and the air was perfectly still. The guys spent the afternoon on Copacabana, I walked around a few neighbourhoods to take pictures. We had made if-this-than-that plans to meet in Botafogo and go to the Pão de Açúcar together—what if it starts raining, what if we don’t find each other in front of the Havaianas store, what if we’re late, all the typical “what-ifs” of people who don’t have cellphones.
All that for nothing. When I stopped by the hotel at 4 p.m., Mark was eating French fries half-naked and Feng was about to take a shower. “It started raining in Copacabana, I figured we’d eat and clean up before going to the Pão de Açúcar…”
And instead of leaving from Botafogo at 4:30 p.m., we left Largo do Machado at 5:30 p.m., got to Botafogo around 5:45 p.m. and started the long walk to the Pão de Açúcar, very inconveniently located nowhere close to any of the subway stations.
We’ve been to Rio many times before. I should have remembered that.
I know what to expect from Rio. It’s beautiful, it’s fun, it’s entertaining.
It’s also heartbreaking. This year, walking around the city, I wasn’t scared for my own safety—I was scared for the people I was meeting on my way. It’s weird, because I’m no stranger to the kind of poverty and half-assed arrangements you see in Brazil and in many countries—people sleeping on the streets, favelas, lack of basic sanitation, and this crazy idea that God will eventually make everything better. Of course, it affects me, but you do get used to it.
But this time, I felt like shouting “slow down! You’re going to get killed!” to food delivery drivers negotiating rush-hour traffic on their rented bike—yes, this is a new low, in Rio, plenty of Rappi contractors use the bike-share system because they can’t afford their own. “Don’t eat it! It’s gross!” I wanted to tell people digging into garbage bins for leftover food.
A famous song by French singer Charles Aznavour states that “living in poverty wouldn’t be as tough if it’s sunny.” Well, this year, it was rainy in Rio. The city felt dirtier than usual and the divide more obvious—half of the city carries an umbrella, a quarter sell them and the rest takes shelter under cartons.
We always get sick in Rio. Last year, it was Feng, this year was my turn. I had a stomach bug for a couple of days and I can assure you it’s not some exotic food my delicate French tummy couldn’t handle—the city seems to survive on ham and cheese baked in some kind of bread (croissant, quiche, empada, pão de batata…) and feijoada on weekends. I shrugged it off. “It’s dirty in Rio,” is usually our diagnosis.
We finally reached the Pão de Açúcar. Dark clouds were coming our way, tour buses were leaving.
“What time does it close?” I asked when we bought the tickets.
“The last ride down is at 8 p.m.”
We took the bondinho to the first stop, Morro da Urca. We watched a couple of GOL Airlines planes making the crazy landing at Santo Dumont Airport just below.
We took the second cable car up to Pão de Açúcar. It was swaying about—the storm was coming.
It started raining as soon as we got off. The top of the Pão de Açúcar is probably not where you want to be stuck during a downpour but hey, that’s where we were.
It was cold and windy. The light was amazing and so was the view.
We stayed long enough to see the sunset, then the city lights.
And this is Rio for you. It’s stunningly beautiful but dirty and crowded. It’s always full of surprises, good and bad.
For me, Rio will always be the group of teens drunkenly singing Cidade Maravilhosa in a city bus during Carnival a few years ago—booze-induced patriotic fervour or heavy irony, I’d never know, just like I’m never quite sure what to make of Rio.