Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Feeling Like a True Carioca: Discovering Corcovado Mountain and Copacabana Beach

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Becoming a True  Carioca--A Full Day of Sight-Seeing

            Awaking on my first morning in Rio, my I-Phone alarm did not go off: I had forgotten to put it on AM mode—it promptly went off at 6. 30 that evening! Rosana was expected at my flat at 8.00 am ready to take me off for breakfast to a local eatery where ordinary folks get their first cuppas of the day. I was eager and excited, but lay fast asleep. Brazil is one hour ahead of New York time—so it was a few minutes before 8.00 am, when I awoke with a start. Rosana rang my bell quite promptly, five minutes later, then remembered she had left her cell phone at her place. That gave me 15 minutes to get my act together before her return.

The Church of Our Lady of Gloria (Igrejia de Nosso Senhora de Gloria):

            About 20 minutes later, I was all set. But we had lost precious time and Rosana had a conference to attend. She was keen to take me for a visit to the Church of Our Lady of Glory (for which the entire area is named). It is perched high on a hill and overlooks the city center. Even from below, I could see its Portuguese archaic design. We walked together briskly, dodging traffic, across Gloria Park and made our way to the entrance of a funicular train that whisks worshippers up the hill to the church—I was grateful because I did not fancy climbing a steep hill on an empty stomach. Alas, the church was closed. We were able to skirt its periphery, take pictures of its old-world ambience as well as lovely pictures of Rio spread below us at a time when Cariocas were slowly getting ahead with their day. The sun was a little too hot on my back—this is winter in the tropics, I thought! The days are warmer in winter than Southport, Connecticut, in the summer!

 Breakfast in a Local Eatery:

Next on the agenda was breakfast in a small local eatery—not the one Rosana initially had in mind as there was little time for that venue; but a small, inexpensive coffee shop of which Rio is full. People stop at any time of the day for a cuppa and a snack—fried bolinhas (balls) with sweet or savory fillings are common or stuffed puff-pastry triangles make similar treats. Rosana ordered a cheese ball—cheese is not stuffed inside in this case but is included in the dough which is then baked. I found its texture too rubbery for my taste. I chose a large slice of banana bread studded with granola and a large cup of American coffee with milk. It is customary to drink espresso coffee here—dark, strong and black in very tiny cups. Not my cup of er…coffee! Breakfast was delicious and on wiping our mouths clean, we walked for the next five minutes to the Windsor Florida Hotel where the conference for which I had come to Rio would be held. Rosana’s conference was in another hotel nearby.

Off to See Christ the Redeemer (Christo Redentor):

            At the entrance to the Windsor Florida Hotel and having pointed out the Metro (underground) stop called Catete, Rosana bid me goodbye and hurried off. I know from much travel experience that it is best to ‘do’ the most important sights first—in other words, to prioritize one’s sightseeing and to take advantage of good weather (one never knows when rain will arrive to dampen touring plans).In cities, there is always the chance of a transport strike or other factors that can close it down—best see the main sights while possible and go down one’s list in descending order of importance, I say.

            So…it was to Corcovado—the famous mountain on which the towering statue of Brazil’s most iconic sculpture is located—that I made a bee-line. But how to get there? It is not served by a Metro stop. Best to ask at Hotel Reception, I thought. So in I went to the charming Receptionist at the Windsor Florida Hotel whose English was good enough to get her message across. A number of hotel personnel converged around me to offer the standard response to most tourists—to get somewhere, just take a cab—and there was a string of them outside the hotel. Now cabs are very reasonably priced in Rio, but I was keen, as I am everywhere in the world—to live like the locals do. So I insisted on being told how to get there by public bus (the cheapest and easiest way to see a foreign city). In a few minutes, I was advised to walk five minutes up the street to the bus terminus at Largo do Machado from where buses ran to Cosme Velho—the base for an excursion up Corcovado.

            And how easily I found it! At Largo do Machado, I asked some bus conductors to direct me to the correct bus for Cosme Velho—pointing to the places on a map was a good way to get answers to questions. Another five minutes later, I was sailing off to Corcovado and getting a free sightseeing tour of Rio in the bargain! Again, I kept thinking I was driving through the streets of Bombay because so many similarities leaped out at me.

 Climbing Up Corcovado:

            About a half hour later, I was at the terminus of the Trem de Corcovado, a modern tram system that gets visitors up the mountain every half hour. I bought a ticket for R51 (about $18)—this included return fares on the tram and the entry fee to the monument. Crowds were gregarious and noisy—most were Americans who had arrived in package tours groups, although there were hordes from Singapore and elsewhere. Having to wait for a half hour for the next tram allowed me to use the free wifi (as there was no sign of connectivity in my apartment). It is amazing when one travels how sensitive one becomes to re-charging points, wifi hotspots, etc.

            When a half hour had passed, the tram did arrive and I piled in with other merry-makers to climb the mountain. It was a delightful 20 minute ride into the heart of the rain forest called Tijuca National Park that was shaded and dappled at every turn. Trees that I easily recognized from my Indian childhood flooded into perspective—mango, cashew, papaya, banana, banyan. They formed a shady canopy as we climbed ever higher when the first glimpses of the sculpture came into focus even as the sprawling city of Rio grew more distant beneath us.

            When we arrived at the summit, we raced a few paces to the peak and then, there it was! My first glimpse, up close and personal, of Christ the Redeemer. It is a towering work of art by the Parisian sculptor Paul Landowski through a project engineered by the Brazilian Hector da Silva Costa for which local Cariocas raised money as they went door to door urging people to give. It is 98 feet tall with an arm spread of 92 feet. The equivalent of Paris’ Eiffel Tower, this figure can be seen from most parts of Rio (when the summit is not shrouded in fog). It stands on a tall pedestal (like the Statue of Liberty) in which base in a really tiny chapel with room for about 10 people—Pope John Paul II said Mass in it on a visit here but although I wished to enter, it was all boarded up for refurbishment. This was what I found in a number of places I visited: perhaps this is the wrong time to visit Rio for the city is gearing up seriously for the 2016 Olympics and everywhere you go, there is evidence of sprucing up. Next year this time, the city will be glowing, no doubt; but for the moment, I realized I had to get accustomed to disappointment.

            Soon I joined the hordes on the crest of the mountain to take pictures of the city spread out beneath me. Unfortunately, it was a very foggy day and huge bits of the city were blanketed in a haze. I took pictures as best I could and asked others to take my picture to immortalize my visit to the sacred spot. The spread of the city at my feet was an awesome feeling. I tried to acquaint myself with its many neighborhoods—tall high rise apartment buildings dwarf the lower structures. But there is order everywhere—Rio is not haphazard in the way that Bombay is. It is not derelict in the way that some parts of Bombay are. Everywhere you look from a height you see more mountains and islands. There are large stadiums (including Maracana which will play a big role during the Olympics, no doubt) and parks—so much greenery everywhere—and a huge lake called Largo de Roderigo Freitas in the middle of the city. With so many water views, it is no surprise that luxury high-rise buildings offering stunning views are packed into the urban island spaces. They give the city a most interesting and very distinctive feel.

The Art Deco sculpture is indeed impressive, not just in terms of its massive size but also the benign and kindly expression on Christ’s face. Sadly, visitors make the whole experience a bit too overwhelming. There are crowds and noise and cameras and professional photographers offering to take glossy pictures with the statue in the background for a lot of money. There are souvenir shops whose tacky wares were heavily overpriced. There are refreshment rooms whose food and drink costs a fortune. Overall, it was not as pleasant an experience as I had hoped and it was with little regret that I returned to the line to take the tram back down to the base.

            It was while waiting for the tram that I made friends with a young guy who was reading an English novel on his Kindle. He turned out to be a gay American professor of eco-tourism who teaches at Ferrum College in Virginia. Also traveling alone as part of a work assignment to create eco-friendly trails in the rain forests of Brazil, Chris made a worthy companion as we talked about our plans in the city. He intended to get to the Confiteria Colombo downtown after our excursion in Corcovado, while I decided to go in search of a place called Largo de Botacaria that Lonely Planet had suggested I visit without fail.

 In Search of Largo da Botacaria:

            Largo da Botacaria was supposedly only a five minute trek from the base of Corcovado Mountain’s tram station and Chris decided to accompany me on my search to find this antiquated square built in the 18th century that was reminiscent of Rio in that epoch. When we did find it, we were kind of disappointed. I expected to find much more that the rather ill-maintained, dilapidated Portuguese colonial era building with its faded paint and central potted plant in the cobbled square. A river that flowed through it looked little better than a large gutter. Still, I suppose, it was worth it to see how old Rio might have looked before automobiles when people sat on their stoops and gossiped the hot mornings away—as a couple of women were doing when we visited. We spent barely ten minutes there, took a few pictures and left them to their natter.

 Off to Confiteria Colombo:

            Five minutes later, we were back at the public bus terminus looking for the bus that would take us to Centro (as the downtown area is called) to go in search of Confiteria Colombo of which I too had read in my guidebook. This is one of the old coffee shops that date from Portuguese colonial times—the 1700s, a time when fashionable men and women stepped into these restaurants to sip a coffee and nibble on a delicious pastry after a busy morning’s shopping for luxury exotic goods that had been acquired through colonization. With a few of these places still left in Rio, they are being well-preserved and patronized and a stop in any one of them is a lovely experience of Rio as it once was.

Our bus ride took forever as it wound sluggishly through the crowded streets. While I enjoyed it immensely (as bus rides are, in my opinion, the cheapest and most interesting way to see a city), Chris got fed up and recommended that we jump off at the next Metro station to take the super quick underground train. I agreed as I was grateful for his company that would enable me to learn how the system worked. At Largo do Machado, we jumped off and under Chris’ guidance, I bought a Pre-Paid card (the equivalent of a London Oystercard) and filled it with R20 worth of rides (each ride costs a flat R3.40 as on the buses). There is something wonderfully comforting about having a flat transport fee over the entire country! From Foz to Rio, the price of bus rides was the same! I discovered that Rio’s Metro system is small—really tiny with no more than a total of 20 stations. But it is marvelously bright, clean, spacious, modern. Rio’s city map contains its Metro map as well and within five minutes, I felt like a veteran commuter. It was ever so easy to get in and out of the trains and to find seats within. All underground trains are fully air-conditioned and quiet: here is where Rio differs from Bombay. While the trains in Bombay are hot, smelly, dusty ovens filled with incessant chatter, here no one spoke and when people do, they speak quietly. The trains get you up and down the city speedily and conveniently and at about a dollar a ride, they are dirt cheap as well.

Coffee and Conversation at Confiteria Colombo:

            Chris and I hopped off at Urugiana Metro station and, using our trusty maps, found Confiteria Colombo in about ten minutes, tucked away in one of the busy commercial lanes of the Centro area. Once inside, the visitor is struck by the delightfully antiquated ambience. There are wall-length Belgian mirrors that reflect sparkling chandeliers that light up the cavernous space. All wooden fitments are made of native jacaranda wood and a huge stained glass ceiling (as in Paris’ Galleries Lafayette) offsets the entire interior. It is opulent but in the classiest way.

            A maître d’hotel led us past an array of dazzling show cases filled with every conceivable pastry, frosted cake and cookie. A lovely hostess then led us to a table for tea where we settled down with bilingual menus. Local Cariocas were dressed beautifully—men in jackets and ties, women in pearls--as they sipped their coffees and forked creamy cakes into their mouths. We felt a bit scruffy in our tourist gear…but hey, we were there for the local experience. Before long, we had made our choices: I got a most unusual item from the menu (one I rarely see anywhere but which happens to be a personal favorite of mine!): A croquette filled with Smoked Ox Tongue! I know, I know…you are possibly shuddering, but believe me, I have always loved cold tongue and I never can find it in the US. I also chose a Hazelnut Chocolate Pastry made of Hazelnut chocolate mousse in a crisp tart shell—similar to the Pastel de Nata (Christmas pastries, really little custard tarts, that were invented in Belem outside Lisbon in Portugal where I had eaten them on a visit there). We washed our goodies down with coffee—iced for Chris, a macchiato for me--and by the time we lifted the last crumbs off our plates, we were well and truly full. Everything was delicious but, more importantly, we felt as if we had experienced one of the oldest traditions of this city—whiling away a few hours with coffee and conversation in very good company.

 Off to Copabacana Beach:

            With our bills squared away, Chris and I hopped on to the Metro again. He was off someplace that he wanted to cover before he left Rio for a trip south the next day. I was headed to the city’s most famous beach—Copacabana, that had also given its name to a New York night club (that I had once danced in early in my stay in the US—one that Barry Manilow had immortalized in one of his songs. ).

Well, I took the Metro down to Cordeal Arcoverde station and about fifteen minutes later, I was looking straight at the water. It was about 3.30 pm by this time and I have to say that the entire area is a bit tired-looking. Copacabana Beach is wide and full of fine white sand. It was the local hang out and far from upscale until the Copacabana Palace Hotel opened in the 1930s in a grand Neo-Classical style. Then the beautiful people began flocking here and before you knew it, the beach was on the international tourist map.

When I arrived at the promenade that runs along the waterfront, I was struck as all visitors are, by the beautiful curving forms of the mosaic sidewalk in black and white stone. In fact, these are an essentially unique feature in Rio—a product of Portuguese colonial design. But since they have to be laid, stone by stone, by hand, the process is laborious and expensive. Rosana explained to me that it is hard to find local Brazilian labor to undertake this work and, ironically enough, laborers are now being imported from cash-strapped Portugal, to take on the repairs of these interesting sidewalks. Not the most convenient for high heels, I have to say that I was grateful for the Hush Puppy Epic Mary Janes that I had especially purchased for this trip as I had grown tired of my Dansko Clogs (that had been my trusty footwear over many a mile in unknown realms).

Anyway, I spent a while lounging on the sands of Copacabana and watching the changing human drama unfold before my eyes. Bikini-clad Cariocas were frolicking amidst the towering azure waves. The water was crystal clear but the fury and height of the waves made it perfect for surfing. Although I saw a lot of surf boards sprinkled on the sands, there were no surfers in sight. Bathers yes, surfers no. And it was hot! I had no intention of getting into the water because I lacked bathing gear…but I was sorely tempted to wet my feet. Vendors went from one customer to the next selling an array of products—beach towels, beach balls and other toys, snacks, potato wafers, cold drinks. Kite fliers were busy on another part of the beach that curved to the distant Copacabana Fort. The seascape reminded me a lot of South Beach in Miami as the promenade here too is lined by luxury hotels—Miami’s architecture is restricted to Art Deco buildings while these are varied.

            When I had rested my feet a while, I began to walk along the curving black and white mosaic sidewalk towards the grand hotel that had started the tourist rush to the water front.

There in the cool air-conditioned space, I used the free wifi and the free loos and took in the special ritzy ambience of five-star hotels everywhere in the world. The Copacabana Palace Hotel has played host to some of the world’s most prominent celebrities including Queen Elizabeth II and there is a small exhibit on one of the floors that proclaims its fame.  I also had a sit-down on one of the nicest sofas in the Reception Lounge and then, when I felt sufficiently rested, I walked slowly back to the Metro stop, along yet another street in order to discover some more of the area and feeling as if a bit of a lie-down was in order, I made my way back to my apartment. I loved its central location and was very grateful for the fact, as in the case of my London apartment, that I could get anywhere in about 15 minutes.

A Late Afternoon Siesta Chez Moi:

            I had my customary 40 winks. This usually lasts 20 minutes and leaves me feeling really refreshed—the perfect cat nap. In the quiet, darkened atmosphere of my bedroom, with city sounds shut off, sleep came quickly and I dozed off and slept deeply. It was good to take these breaks from the hectic pace of uninterrupted sightseeing.

 Conference Cocktail Caprinhas on the Terrace:

            At about 6. 30 pm, having changed and freshened up, I walked with the confidence of a local resident to the Windsor Florida Hotel which I reached in under 10 minutes, to meet the rest of the delegates who would have arrived for the conference in which I would be participating the next day. The Conference was being organized by the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC) and its office bearers were already at the lobby when I arrived. I immediately recognized its President Prof. David Rosner of Metropolitan College, New York, who welcomed me warmly, exchanged a few words with me, introduced me to the local Rio liaison person, Teresa Aguiar, and suggested I take the elevator to the Roof Garden to meet the other participants over drinks. And it was there that I had my first sips of the famous cocktail known as the Caprinha (pronounced Caprin-ya) which is Brazil’s answer to the Cuban mojito. Made by muddling limes, adding a shot of cashaca (sugarcane liqueur) and loads of ice, the drink is wonderfully refreshing on a hot evening although I reckon it could be enjoyed all year round. Snacks like potato crisps and assorted nuts were provided by the bar and seated in the company of international delegates from the US, Iran, Brazil, Poland, etc. I felt very much at ease. Over the next few days, I would get to know this pack of participants well and I was glad to have made their acquaintance as we literally broke the ice over drinks.

            But by 8. 30 pm, I felt compelled to return to my apartment. Although the area is well-lit and crowded, I was rather worried about my personal safety and did not wish to risk staying out alone too late. The brisk walk home took me less than ten minutes and in the quiet privacy of my room, I reviewed my presentation for the next day, watched a spot of TV in Portuguese, had a lovely hot shower and readied myself for sleep after what had been an ultra-productive day of sightseeing that had covered two of Rio’s highlights—Corcavado and Copacabana.

            Indeed, by the time I switched off my bedside lamp, I had begun to feel like a true Carioca!

            Until tomorrow, ciao!                  

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