The Falls’ tropical forest, monkeys, alligators, birds and wonderfully coloured butterflies marked the transition from Argentina to O Pais Tropical (Tropical country), as the famous song by Jorge Ben goes. Planning to spend a few months in Brasil to immerse myself in a country that for years had captivated my imagination, I thought that its language and music would offer me a good starting point. This is how I found myself studying Brazilian Portuguese for one month in Rio de Janeiro, the city of the samba , among many other things.
As I was in Rio on the run-up to Carnival in February 2011, on one my first days there I went to the rehearsal of the samba school of Rocinha´s favela (shantytown), the largest favela in South America. It is a famous samba school, though not the most flamboyant, and this rehearsal was kind of low-key. But for a newbie like me, watching the parade with its melange of mature women, the so-called bahianas, drag queens, beautiful mulattas and other samba dancers, together with the infectious sound of the percussions and the hoarse voice of the singers, I had one of the first “Ah!” moments in Brasil. The parade was along the beachfront of a posh Rio´s neighborhood, Sao Conrado, surrounded by the hills where the favela Rocinha, in a typical Brazilian paradox, lies.
A little side note if you are planning to go to Brazil for Carnival: most Brazilians told me that the best Carnival in the country is now in Recife, in the North-East of Brazil , so a good option would be stay in Rio to see the Carnival rehearsals and go to Recife for the Carnival.
Increasingly intrigued by samba, tipped by some locals, I went to see a weekly session in a place called Pedra do Sal (Salt Stone), near Rio’s harbour, where Bahians immigrants used to unload salt cargoes and where, allegedly, the first samba sessions in Rio were held at the beginning of the 20th century. As I was entering the maze of Rio’s old Centre and when I finally found my way to the samba gathering, with Bahians women dancing in the walls’ graffiti, I felt again close to the spirit of the place and its people. To assuage an old passion of mine, I even took a handful of samba lessons. While dancing with the teacher to a Zeca Pagodinho‘s tune, I felt like I could keep dancing and dancing forever……
Finally, I went to the party of another famous samba school called Salgueiro, which looked like a big dance party at the disco, with some jaw-dropping characters like the baile funk singer Valesca Popozuda (literally, Big-ass Valesca).
Baile funk is a type of music born in Rio´s favelas and that in time became quite mainstream, so much so that baile funk parties are often organized in various parts of the city. Its rhythm is syncopated and the lyrics are very tough and sexually explicit. If you have seen the Brazilian movie Elite Squad, on Rio´s Special Police Operations Force, you will probably remember scenes of an open-air party in a favela, patrolled by armed security guards sent by the local drug dealers.
Favelas in Brazil, and particularly in Rio, are part of the landscape and of the urban life. Observing the amazing geography of Rio from the Sugar Loaf, it is easy to see how many favelas are there, usually perched up in the hills surrounding wealthy neighbourhoods. The contrast between rich and poor is strong and evident in a way I did not see in Europe or even in the United States. This contrast seems to inform Rio’s identity and much of its distinctive and multifaceted urban culture, as well as its own slang and its time-honoured tradition of malandragem, which translates very loosely as cheekiness.
Is Rio as violent as they say? In November 2010, there was a big police raid and ensuing war with drug traffickers in one of Rio’s largest favela, Complexo do Alemão . While I was in Rio in 2011, so-called Pacification Police Units entered various smaller favelas one weekend, including some of the favelas surrounding the neighbourhood where I lived, Santa Teresa, in an effort to control crime and increase security, also in preparation to the 2016 Olympics and World Cup. Many people assured me that Rio used to be a much more dangerous place a few years back. This said, I felt insecure at times, a sense of danger lurking here and there, and a few of my house-mates were robbed, but this is, after all, a big, big city.
So, where was I living in Rio? As some gringos (foreigners) do, I rented a room in a big house owned by a Brazilian family who was hosting other foreigners as well as some Brazilians in a nice neighborhood high up on the hills, Santa Teresa, with a distinctive artsy and bohemian feeling to it. If you visit Rio, don’t miss it!
In order to get there from the city centre, I had three options: to take the metro and a minivan; to trek up-hill for thirty minutes trough winding cobbled streets lined by some crumbling and some very beautiful 19th century mansions or, what became my favourite option despite fearing for myself at times, taking a mototaxi! But I don’t regret it, Santa Teresa gave me a complementary view to the Rio of Ipanema and I met there a few interesting locals whom shared their love for the neighbourhood with me.
In Rio I attended a school of Portuguese, Friends of the Casa do Caminho, which is part and supports an NGO sheltering teenagers and children at risk in a small city just outside of Rio. It is based in glamorous Ipanema but it has an informal feeling to it. Rio Southern neighbourhoods by the beach – Ipanema, Copacabana, Leme, Leblon – are considered the best and safest in Rio, though they were not my favorite. This said, Ipanema beach is a beauty and to watch the sunset there at the end of a Portuguese lesson was a big bonus.
Overall, I liked a lot Rio without, for some reasons, loving it. Mine though is a very partial view and a good example of how sometimes, when travelling, one might be slightly out of synch with a place in a given moment. For instance feeling zen and meditative – samba aside, of course! – in an electrifying place… At time I had the impression to be a plug getting more energy than it could bear. But now that I look back to my time there, I realize how rich the place is and how, amid its toughness and congestion, there is poetry, like the sweet elderly mute black man from where I used to buy second-hands books in Ipanema. Not to mention Rio stunning landscape, best experienced from high above, and its urban folklore. There is, for instance, Profeta Gentileza (Prophet Kindness), who wrote love & peace messages in the pilasters of a Rio bridge in the violent 80s; the drag queen and capoerista Madame Sata; Luz del Fuego, a long-haired performer who lived semi naked with her snakes in an island of Guanabara Bay..
Staying in Brazil fort an extended period and speaking a bit the language, I realized how Brazilian language can be soft and velvety like in many of the Bossa Nova songs, or harsh, strong and at times even vulgar, like in the lyrics of baile funk. And somehow I felt the same about the country. Brasil is so huge, with such a multi-layered identity, that at times I felt my limits in understanding it. It is infinitely more complex of the few stereotypes I had in mind coming from the other side of the world.
In the next post, as we land in the magical State of Bahia, we continue exploring Brazil, its people and music. So, let’s keep up with the samba!