Cristo - statue and umbrellas

It was our last day in Rio de Janeiro and we still hadn’t visited Christ the Redeemer, Cristo Rendentor. That’s the big grey statue of Jesus Christ that watches over 7 million cariocas (Rio’s citizens), mostly Catholics, from its perch high above the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city) on Brazil’s Atlantic coast.

On a clear day, you can see much of Rio from there. The sandy Copacabana, Ipanema and Leme beaches beckon. There’s the Sugarloaf, with its gondolas dangling from the sky, the second highest point from which to view the 30 kilometres that demark one of the world’s great beach cities. It was on one of the gondolas that James Bond fought off Jaws in Moonraker. If you crane your neck you can see the old city with its favelas (slums) climbing up the surrounding hills like multi-coloured cactuses.

But that’s on a clear day. Rio in the rain is another matter. In fact, you could see nothing from the stone-cold statue aside from the other turistas that were on the rickety train that zigzagged us to the top of Corcovado Mountain. Rain had plagued the city for two months, so there was no choice but to use the last day to visit the statue made world famous on a thousand postcards sent to millions of envious stay-at-home dreamers.

The City of God

Off to the far west, the fog hides the City of God, a gang-infested housing project depicted in the film of that name. It was 2002’s Slumdog Millionaire without the Bollywood song-and-dance routine. Many of the ‘actors’ were kids from the favelas. Recent reports say the police have rid the project of the gangs, but it is unlikely to become a prime tourist target unless Rio decides to offer slum tours in the future. With the world economic downtown starting to affect travellers, it might become an option for a starved tourist industry looking for new ways to attract tourists to this notorious Sin City.

The inner-city neighbourhood of Lapa has a reputation for being one of those slums, but even if the fog were to lift you wouldn’t see it. An out-of-work clown working as a city guide warns that it is rough at night, but it’s also the best place to see and hear samba, the dance that cariocas seem to live for in the lead-up to this month’s Carnaval.

A set of steps beaming with rain-drenched tiles – a mosaic of religious, secular and popular images – acts as Lapa’s distinctive landmark. The Chilean artist who created it has even included a few Canadian tiles amidst the thousands of others in this kitschy work of community art.

Nor would the fog allow you to see the bonde, an ancient tram that waddles across an equally ancient viaduct to get its passengers up to Santa Teresa above Lapa. It rattles along as it has done for 100 years carrying residents and visitors to the two-storey houses that are attracting artists and other bohemians these days. Teenagers hop on for free, their bodies hanging on the outside of the tram as it rolls along above the bustling avenidas, ruas, pracas and pedestrian travessas of El Centro, the old city below.

Avenida Rio Branco, the major business street, with its bank on every block, cuts a wide swam through town. Praca Quinze di Novembro, the date of Brazil’s independence in 1899, hums with food kiosks and the traffic created by hundreds of speedy buses and taxis. It is one of Rio’s many squares and plazas.

Deep inside El Centro, diners are having lunch or the traditional 300 ml glass of chopp (draft beer) at the 100-year-old Bar Luis. Petite Travessa de Ouvidor is crawling with bookworms shopping at Livraria da Travessa, one of Rio’s best bookstores. Across the little pedestrian alley is a bronze statue of saxophonist Pixinguinha, the jazz pioneer. It reminds passers-by of the great variety of music emanating from Rio.

Where samba is king

The samba is king here and samba classes will get you shaking your bodies rhythmically or, in my case, spasmodically. For a price, you can watch students practice for the heated competitions that are at the heart of Carnaval, the biggest such festival in all of South America and possibly the world. But this is also home to the bossa nova and tropicalia, the latter offering a different kind of protest song from those of famous Brazilian crooners like Gaetano Veloso.

There might have been a slight frown on Cristo’s face when the fog failed to lift enough over Lapa to see the modern Catedral Metropolitana with its four towering walls. They form a cone shape not unlike some of the structures seen in indigenous cities long before the Portuguese and French conquered and slaughtered the first inhabitants, beginning early in the 16th Century.

Fog, rain and a tourist’s whine

The fog persists. Umbrellas are a part of every photograph snapped, although some in our flock get wet imitating Cristo’s cemented pose. With nothing to see, the crowd turns on itself to complain pointlessly. “Why is it raining?” a woman wrapped in a sari asks. She is holding a copy of O Dia newspaper over her head as a makeshift hat. “I am from Capetown,” she tries for attention a second time.

She represents the throngs, both sacred and profane, who have come to this sun worshippers’ mecca from a dozen countries. She has run the gauntlet of tourist shops at the base of Corcovado Mountain and risen above the mundane for a look at what Cristo sees. Perhaps she has come to see God. Neither is in the cards today.

Down to the west, the Jardim Botanico is celebrating its 140th year. On a sunny day, you can see Cristo from there through the lush forests and past the great fountains, orchid greenhouses and statues, one depicting the story of Narcissus. The garden contains 137 hectares of exotic trees, predominantly breadfruit with its football-size produce dangling like giant mammaries.

Like a prayer: Worshipping Madonna in Rio

Cristo seemed to squint for a moment or maybe he had his eyes shut tight. Could he have spotted an arch-sinner in the crowd below? Wait. Maybe it’s a foreign temptress that he spies. Ah yes, Madonna is staying at the Copacabana Palace hotel, the great white princess that symbolizes the opulence and wealth of another era. She has invaded Rio.

Every carioca‘s TV set catches hourly news of her movements. The TVs in the chopp bars have her prancing across the stage in her skimpy outfits. The breakfast empanada munchers at the hotel ogle her 50-year-old body as it wriggles and writhes through the routines that will soon be on the big stage at Maracanã stadium. It will be yet another command performance on her “Sticky and Sweet” world tour.

Meanwhile, a thousand adoring fans and curiosity seekers gather outside the Copa Palace to get a glimpse of the famous star of Evita, fresh from her divorce and said to be dating a Brazilian soccer player. “She is on the sixth floor,” says one of the young fans standing and pacing impatiently outside the fenced and guarded entrance to the hotel. “See. The door is open there in the middle.” It is wishful thinking. They will wait in vain for four or five nights. Madonna will not show even a flash of herself. She might not even be there.

In its 1950s heyday, when rich tourists, film stars and stargazers congregated along Avenida Atlantica, the Copa was the go-to place. Now it is almost hidden by dozens of high-rise hotels, competing for the upper-end tourist trade. But Madonna has momentarily restored some of its old glory. Perhaps her handlers have duped the fans and spirited her to a hideaway one beach over in Ipanema. Maybe she has ordered takeout from the Casa de Feijoado (a pork meal popular with cariocas on Saturdays). Maybe she has paid homage to a pair of fellow songwriters there who penned ‘The Girl from Ipanema,’ a 1960s pop song.

Still, her fans are camped outside and the paparazzi line the beach sidewalk with their telephoto lenses pointing phallic-like toward the sixth floor. They are ready to snap any sign of the singer. Nearby, sun seekers and people peepers sip caipirinhas (cane liquor cocktails) before chowing down at the Sindicato de Chopp or one of a dozen chain restaurants along the boulevard. Some may venture as far as historic Forte de Copacabana to eat at Confeitaria Colombo, a classy European-style café. Beach volleyball addicts focus on perfecting their game while sand sculptors entice tourists to photograph their momentary masterpieces. Few will pay for the privilege.

Sin City seeks redemption

Oh, Cristo! The city beneath the fog is a playground of sin, is it not? But the world’s media would soon announce that the Copacabana beach crowd has been cleaned up. No more wanton prostitution, brazen purse snatchings or back-alley muggings. That’s all in the past. How will Rio’s foremost mystery writer, Luis Garcia-Roza, who sets many of his stories in this former den of iniquity, cope with the newly cleansed city?

The sun would come out eventually and shine on Rio. The tourist traps were hoping it would happen in time for Carnaval. For now, though, the rain persists and that might be a good thing. With the rain comes the fog and with the fog comes momentary blindness. Perhaps that will provide enough time for the marvelous city to redeem itself as the world threatens to go bankrupt.

A gecko scampers out from under a rock near Cristo, then slithers back into its stone home, a sort of Brazilian groundhog warning that the fine weather and good times are yet to come.

Ron Verzuh is a Vancouver writer.