Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Rio's Botanical Gardens & Discovering Lapa and Santa Teresa

Thursday, June 11, 2015:
Rio Conference Calling, Botanical Gardens, Discovering Lapa and Santa Teresa:    

            On the day of my conference presentation, I arose at 6. 30 am, did some reading in bed (I had downloaded Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy on my I-Phone), took a shower, ate a hearty breakfast of cereal with passionfruit yogurt, coffee and fresh fruit, and walked out of my apartment with growing confidence. In 10 minutes, I was at the hotel just in time for the Welcome Remarks at 9.00 am sharp by David Rosner and Michael Andregg. And then, we were off to the room in which my presentation would be made. I had a Powerpoint Presentation to set up and a paper to fish out and within five minutes, I was ready to go. Indeed, I turned out to be the first speaker of the conference and to a crowd of global representatives from many countries (many of whom were from Saudi Arabia), I was off and running. I spoke for twenty minutes on “The Clash of Titans: Quasi-Capitalism and Socialism in the Literature and Cinema of Post-Colonial India”, showed several slides on the screen and waited for the next three presenters on my panel to strut their stuff before the house was opened to questions from the floor. I had a very interesting morning indeed as I listened to the presenters as well as responded to questions and then within two hours, it was over. My official part in the conference had concluded. I was free to enjoy the city of Rio at leisure, attend several more panels and more presentations as and when I chose to and network with the delegates. I had a small coffee, nibbled at a chocolate and walked out into a brilliantly warm day for the next excursion on my agenda—a visit to  Rio’s famed Botanical Gardens.

 Browsing Through The Botanical Gardens:

             Several guide books had recommended a visit to Rio’s Botanical Gardens as a great place in which to discover rain forest vegetation. Somehow, I thought I would take a break from urban sprawl and sprawl instead in vast green acreage, far from the madding crowd. The hotel receptionist told me that taking public buses would make the journey long and complicated as it involved a change. He recommended a taxi and got me one for the agreed price of R30 (approx.. $10). I thought it was a steal but found myself stuck in awful traffic—thank heavens we had agreed on a price at the start—I was certain  I would have paid double that had I gone by the meter.

            Well, the Botanical Garden was probably my biggest disappointment in my travels. It was huge—hundreds of acres were covered with lawns and gardens and at the Entrance from where I purchased a ticket for R9 (approx. $3), no one informed me that there was a golf cart of sorts manned by an assistance that ferried people about the park. As it turned out, I was presented with a bilingual map and after surveying it for a while, decided to begin by a walk through the Parade of Imperial Palms—so-called because they were planted by King Dom Pedro II of Pprtugal when he moved his capital from Lisbon to Rio to escape the onslaught of Napoleon II in 1820. He chose to plant palms as a manifestation of Portugal’s colonial might. These tower above the visitors’ heads today and are quite the tallest palms I have ever seen.

              Next, I intended to see the Orchidarium (as orchids are my favorite flower). But after a long and very hot walk past many sculptured members of royalty, a gushing musical cascade, an arbor strung over with creeping vines, I had a huge disappointment awaiting me. The Orchidarium was closed because it was being renovated in time for the Olympics. While workers painted the inside walls of the green house in a brilliant white, I consoled myself with the thought that there were not many orchids to be seen anyway as it is winter in Rio.

            Instead, I was compensated for my disappointment by sighting a vast family of marmosets—small, black, tufted-eared monkeys, that were raiding a garbage bin, helping themselves to the contents before swinging up and huge a wide banyan tree. They were simply adorable and I ended up taking a bunch of pictures. They were the only wildlife I saw that morning although brochures state that the Botanical Gardens are a haven of bird life.

            I continued walking for at least the next hour as I inspected the varied offerings of this space, but nothing impressed me. Looking for a rest area to nibble on my ham and cheese sandwiches, I bought a bottle of cold water and picnicked in the company of a group of middle school kids on a field trip with their teachers. Finally, my visit ended with a nip into another glass house to see carnivorous plants that devoured insects that settled on them. I had never seen anything like these and was amazed to find succulents with tiny insects actually embedded in their waxy leaves. Another long stroll under the Imperial Palms brought me to the entrance of the gardens from where I looked for a bus to get me to the center of town. I ran into two tourists from Portugal who were looking for a bus stop too and we soon found out that we had to walk a good ten minutes to find the correct one. Eventually, however, when a bus marked ‘Gloria’ trundled along, I hopped in and was so delighted to find that it was air-conditioned and did not cost me more than the standard R3. 40. It was a very long and winding bus route indeed but again, I was in no hurry and thoroughly enjoyed the coolness of my confines, the opportunity to rest my feet and survey the wide-spread city.

            The bus dropped me in Gloria, just a block away from my apartment, and I was amazed at the joy with which I anticipated an afternoon nap. For indeed, I have to say that the heat was quite enervating indeed and I found myself feeling quite drained by mid-day. I made myself a cold chocolate milk shake, settled in front of the TV to enjoy it, did a bit of reading and then took a half hour’s nap.

Discovering Lapa and Santa Teresa On Foot:

            With the early evening stretching ahead of me and the temperature having cooled down somewhat, I decided to go out in search of the highlights of the two neighborhoods adjacent to Gloria called Lapa and Santa Teresa. There were several structures in these areas that demanded inspection and I was keen to comply.

            I walked first to the Church of Our Lady of Lapa (Igrejia de Nossa Senhora de Lapa) which is appealingly antiquated on its corner location within striking distance from the far more dominating Arcos de Lapa or Lapa Acqueduct. Inside, I found an extremely old and very ornate Portuguese church adorned with ceramic tiles. Its altar was in the Portuguese mode with which I had become familiar on my travels in Portugal as well as in Goa, India: several step-like tiers climb to the top where a statue of the deity to whom the church is dedicated is placed. I spent some time in prayer, admired the splendid interior with its multiple statues and then left.

 Climbing the Selaron Staircase (Escadaria Selaron):

Just across the street from the church is a nondescript lane that leads to one of Lapa’s most intriguing attractions: the Selaron Staircase.  Although it was already 4.00 pm, scores of tourists were making their way to the end of the lane where the staircase was clearly visible. They are the handiwork of Chilean artist Jorge Selaron who described them as his “tribute to the Brazilian people”. In 1990, Selaron began to renovate the delapidated staircase running outside his house with brightly colored tiles representing the Brazilian flag. Initially, people laughed at him, but the project soon became his obsession and he neglected his primary work as a painter to create the staircase.

Very soon, Selaron was joined in the project by visitors from around the world who warmed to the idea and began donating tiles representative of their countries. In the 250 steps, there are today about 2000 embedded tiles. The steps that begin in Lapa, an old and rather run-down part of town, go up to the heights of Santa Teresa where there is a small shrine. Selaron began to see the project as never-ending. Every few months, he would start over an area that had already been completed—as a result, it is a constant work-in-progress. Today, tourists pose, as I did, on the steps and closely inspect the many tiles that represent so many different countries. It is a lovely idea on global ecumenism and collaboration and certainly a sight to be seen in Rio. No wonder bus tours bring loads of tourists from all over the world to grab an eyeful.

The Aqueduct of Lapa:

            From the steps, at the end of the lane, the Aqueduct of Lapa is only a few steps away. This is a towering structure that is reminiscent of the Pont du Gard in the South of France. It is built in two tiers and is freshly painted in cream (perhaps for the Olympics?). I took several pictures before attempting to make my way to the end of it in order to board the famous tram that would carry me up Santa Teresa hill.

            No such luck! I discovered that the tram has been temporarily discontinued as fresh track is being laid down on the hill of Santa Teresa…you guessed it, in time for the Olympics! My plans were dashed again, but as I walked under the aqueduct to enter the very happening neighborhood of club-infested, bohemian Lapa, I spied a Tourist Information booth and hurried to it. The sweet assistant told me there in broken English that I could catch a bus that would follow the same route as the tram and take me up to Santa Teresa—this neighborhood offers lovely views of the city as well as the charm of old architecture and well-preserved old houses.

 Exploring Santa Teresa by Bus:

            With darkness falling swiftly (around 5. 30 pm), I followed his directions, found the bus-stop and boarded the bus. And then I had to hang on for dear life because the driver kept pretending he was in Grand Prix! He went around the hair pin bends of the hills of Santa Teresa at top speed, came frequently to sudden frantic jerking stops and seemed to be having the time of his life. I had believed that only auto-rickshaw drivers in India were demented—but these beat them hands down! I had been advised to get off at Guimares Square and had told the driver to let me out when I got there. I have to say that despite my fears of dying in a bus collision, I quite enjoyed the ride.

But I was rather disappointed when we arrived at Guimares and I was told to get off.  There I was in what seemed like a gigantic construction zone. The uprooting of the tram tracks left deep trench-like trails on the hill top, the lighting was barely there, the area was almost deserted but for a few people awaiting a bus on the opposite side. There were a few desultory restaurants doing faint business but I could not, for the life of me, find anything even remotely interesting and wondered why I had made the wild trek up there.

Eventually I did find a store assistant who could speak a bit of English and she advised me to walk down the hill towards the two museums for which the area is famed. It was close to 7.00 pm by then and both museums would be closed at that hour. However, she said, their grounds afforded lovely views of the city lying in what appeared to be a carpet of gold and silver lights and I got a few good views. But it really wasn’t anything to write home about and, once again, I found myself worrying about personal safety as the area was almost deserted and the few folks I did pass were of the dodgy sort.

It was best to find the bus stop that would take me back to Lapa and I lost no time in looking for one. Fortunately, a bus arrived in under a minute and climbing in, I was deposited back downhill to Lapa from where I began the brisk walk home to my apartment. En route, I stopped at one of the casual eateries (run by the Chinese Mafia in Rio, as Rosana informed me!) and bought myself a ham and cheese roll and a chicken puff for a mere couple of dollars. A few feet ahead, I saw a man with a cart selling Churros—the deep-fried dough treat to which I had become introduced in Spain during our travels there. These were made on a tube like machine and inside each tube either dulche de leche (caramel) or chocolate sauce was squirted. I chose one of each for just R2 each and thrilled with my dinner, made my way home. The churros were outstanding and I resolved to buy them if I ever saw the cart again. Once again, the TV in Portuguese kept me company while I prepared for bed after what had been a rather disappointing day discovery-wise but a very satisfying professional one.

Until tomorrow, Ciao!

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