Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Getting Acquainted with Rio!

From Iguazzu to Rio
Tuesday, June 9, 2015:

            The highlight of my day was the gargantuan buffet breakfast that was part of my deal at Hotel Rouver in Foz de Iguazzu. I must explain that the town is nothing to shout about—a one-horse outpost if it is anything at all. Good job there wasn’t much to do. This enabled me to linger over breakfast in the pleasant ground floor dining room, offered from 7-9 am. I awoke at leisure, showered and dressed and seated myself at a table after walking past the most impressive array of food. Lonely Planet had described it as “a modest breakfast”. Well, they might have had their tongues most definitely in their cheeks, for this spread was huge. Scrambled eggs, ham and other cold cuts, sliced cheese, croissants, butter, a selection of preserves, two kinds of quiche—ham and cheese; a variety of cakes from plain sponges, to coconut cakes to chocolate domes, plain and fruit yogurt. There were juices and coffee and tea. And best of all, there was fruit! Tropical fruit like fresh pineapple and musk melon, sliced papaya, big chunks of watermelon. I was in foodie heaven and am ashamed to say that I ate enough to get my money’s worth—and all I had paid was the modest sum of $30 for this bed and breakfast steal. No wonder I lingered, had a second cup of coffee and then returned to my room.

            An urgent work commitment kept me chained to pen and paper for the entire morning. I had a lot of reading to do (I had carried my papers with me) and I poured over them until about noon, by which time I raced through my packing and with check-out time being noon, just about made it to the counter and out the hotel door on schedule. I waited at the bus stop for about five minutes, hopped into a bus and was at the airport within half an hour.

Flight to Rio de Janeiro:

            My flight to Rio by TAM Airlines at 2. 45 pm was a two-hour affair. A window seat and two sweet female companions from Australia offered me my first glimpses of the stunning landscape that is the city of Rio de Janeiro—also known as Cidade de Maravilhosa (The Marvelous City). Bathed in bright sunshine under clear blue skies, it reposed quietly. Touchdown was smooth and reassuring and half an hour later, my baggage retrieved, I was at the Arrivals Lounge looking for my friend, Prof. Rosana de Freitas who teaches Fine Arts at a local Rio university. She had offered to meet me at the airport and lo and behold, there she was. We were meeting after exactly a year—we had parted in Kyoto, Japan, last July, little knowing that when next we met it would be in ravishing Rio!

            Rosana found us a taxi and soon we were skirting Galeao airport and at 5.00 pm joining the peak hour rush on the highway towards the city. It was a fine time for the two of us to catch up as the taxi inched its way through heavy traffic. I caught my first exciting glimpses of the famous iconic image of Rio—Christ the Redeemer perched high on a hill, His arms outstretched to embrace the world.

Discovering my New Apartment in Gloria:

But, an hour later, the driver was pulling up in the central Rio neighborhood known as Gloria and taking the lift to an apartment owned by Rosana and her American partner, Andrew. As luck would have it, the apartment which is usually rented to visiting tenants, was empty for the week of my occupancy. I saw shades of London all over again as Rosana put me through  the paces, gave me keys that opened the great big front gates and the door to my 2 bedroom flat. Unlike my little boutique flat in London which was tiny but brand-new with the spiffiest new appliances, this was old and sprawling, the rooms huge but wearing their age proudly. I was introduced to the layout of the space, inspected the kitchen and bathroom, took stock of closet space (loads of it in an empty cupboard), was shown supplies of bed linen, etc. before Rosana left to run errands.

            I did what every new arrival in new accommodation does. I unpacked, I made the bed (Rosana had left me bed linen and towels, soap, toilet paper, a few cookies) and marveled at the Andy Warhol print of Marilyn Monroe above my bed. In a former life, when living for three months in a loft in Farringdon, London, there were Marilyn avatars all over my living room (only those had been the real thing—signed Warhol lithographs--while this was a pink print). Still, there was a comforting sense of being followed by poor Marilyn as I switched on the fan to cool the room. The only downside was that for some reason I wasn’t able to get on to wifi nor did the TV in my bedroom work.

The Bombay-Rio Connection:

            Rosana took me for a brief turn around the neighborhood, which, strangely enough, reminded me so much of Bombay and more specifically of Bandra, the small suburb of Bombay from which I hail. When I try to think why it was so reminiscent of the city of my birth, I am sure it has a lot to do with the fact that Rio like Bombay is a coastal city of buildings—no houses to be seen. Shops encircle the ground floor of these buildings that, as a result of the city’s perpetual heat, have wide open balconies around each flat. Indeed, Rio even smells like Bombay: it is the smell I realize now of the urban tropics—a heady mixture of quickly deteriorating garbage, warm and sweaty bodies, the salt tang of the sea. Even the bright fluorescent lighting of the shops reminded me of my home town. The only difference was that unlike the English and Hindi I hear everywhere in Bombay, this was all about the Portuguese tongue tripping on the mouths of one and all. No one speaks anything but Portuguese and in the week that followed, I picked up several words to enable me to get by.

            With Rosana’s guidance, I found the little grocery store that would become familiar to me as I bought food for the next few days: milk, Nescafe instant coffee, cereal, ham, cheese, multi-grain bread for sandwiches, ice-cream and fruit (yes, I almost cried happy tears of nostalgia as I bought papayas, guavas, and custard apples)—enough to see me through the next few days. Even the market smelled like the shops do in India, where the heat quickly gets to meat and fish even with refrigeration and where even the freshest vegetables wilt rapidly. With my food supplies for the week, I returned to my apartment and continued to get organized when Rosana arrived to escort me to her apartment, three buildings away.

            Up a low hill we climbed together and made our way to Rosana’s miraculous ‘find’ of a home: a two bedroom terrace apartment on the rooftop of an eight-storey building that offered lovely views of an illuminated city! Inside, she offered me the country’s favorite snack—Brazil nuts, of course. And cashew nuts and a cold glass of water. There was humidity in the air and it followed me around throughout the week. This too was similar to Bombay. Before long, Andrew walked in. Rosana made introductions and we got chatting easily as we sipped the local brews. They had decided to take me out to dinner on my first night in Rio and I was grateful for the suggestion. It would enable me to experience Rio’s legendary night life as well as acquaint me with restaurant etiquette in this gracious city.

Dinner in Lapa at Nova Capella:

            Half an hour later, we were strolling through the ink-black night under the warm shroud of darkness to Lapa, a bohemian neighborhood just ten minutes from our digs in Gloria.  I had requested local traditional Brazilian food—no McDee’s for me when I have local friends with whom to feast. Luckily, they got exactly what I meant to discover—a small, old, custom-bound eatery that would showcase regional cuisine. Rosana and Andrew chose Nova Capella, a Lapa dining institution dating from 1906, with white sharkskin-clad waiters who exuded gracious charm. Seated at bentwood chairs on red gingham-covered tables, we started with drinks (local beer for me, cashaca, a liqueur made from sugarcane juice for Andrew, red wine for Rosana). They ordered appetizers that were the specialties of the house—bacalau (dried, reconstituted cod fish) formed into fritters with mashed potatoes—light and very tasty, and shrimp–filled empanadas. And for the main dish, they got the house special: roasted squid with broccoli rice. I noted with wonder that the squid was far from leathery—indeed, it was almost as soft and appealing as chicken. Portions were large, the young waiter was cordial throughout and very kind to the foreigner in me—he even offered a bilingual menu! What a wonderful evening, what a fine meal, what delightful company! A gal could not ask for better on her first night in the city.

            On the way back home, we trawled at a leisurely pace through Lapa taking in the well-refurbished restaurants that are seeing a recent gentrification. Old buildings continue to color the neighborhood with the shades of its rich history, but bright paint, the sounds of bossa nova and samba strains emanating from every eatery as live music was offered to patrons on a week night gave me a taste of the rich night life for which Rio has acquired quite a reputation.

            Happily I noted my surroundings, making mental landmarks to remind myself of what I had passed through so that, while on my own, I might renegotiate my way through this vibrant area. We passed an old atmospheric church constructed in the Goan-Portuguese vein, a massive Aqueduct that once carried water to residents in the hilltop enclave of Santa Teresa and is now used for the running of the historical tram from downtown to the hills. On one block, there were strings of gorgeous, skimpily-clad women. I realized at once that they were hookers, but you could have knocked me down with a feather when Rosana informed me that every single one of them was a man—transvestite prostitutes who would not hesitate to kill a regular hooker if she ever strayed on their turf. That was one of the times when the seedier side of Rio revealed itself to me. Repeatedly I was reminded to “Be Careful”—to watch my back. It is a city with a dangerous side and personal vigilance, quite unknown to me, became second nature during my stay. I was even told to put my watch away.  

            There had been a great deal to take in on one day—and my mind was spinning with so many sensual impressions. But above all, as I turned the key in my door ready to hit the sack, I could not help but feel grateful for the opportunity to live in a foreign city once again just like a local resident—a Carioca, as Rio’s citizens are known. Having done so already, on different occasions in my life as in London and Paris, I felt like an old hand at making myself at home in an unfamiliar city. Rio, I thought, here I come!

            Until tomorrow, ciao!                 

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