Humming the tune of “The Girl from Ipanema” by Tom Jobim while strolling down that exact beach of Ipanema in my shorts, bathing suit top, and havaiana flip-flops, I now realize that I was not dreaming… I was really in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. For the past 3 weeks of July, I had the privilege to explore the city and culture of Rio de Janeiro with 14 other students, a native ‘carioca’ PhD student, and Iberian Literature Studies professor. The focus of this overseas seminar was to learn about the rich cultural history of Rio de Janeiro (pronounced ‘Hio je Janeiro’ by locals) which included topics covering the city’s unique urban and natural landscape, race relations, environmental history and the emergence of favelas, and of course the origin of samba and Carnival. For me, this study abroad trip was more of an adventure sprinkled with academic tones with the occasional 2-3 hour lecture series pertaining to the topics above from professors from PUC (pronounced ‘pooky’) (Pontificia Universidade Catolica do Rio de Janeiro). I would love to tell describe my day-by-day accounts of my travels, but that would take more than just a blog post, so let me describe my top 5 most memorable excursions and experiences during my time in Rio.
5. Going to Favela de Cantagalo
In week 2, our group went to the favela of Cantagalo, which is located up in the hills behind Ipanema. We entered the favela in a very interesting way by going up this new public space towers (with one of many breathtaking views of Rio) and crossing a bridge to arrive at a mid-section of the favela. I have to say that this was an unsettling experience that resonated with me as we toured through this community taking pictures of it as if it were a zoo.
These are people and these are their homes. The dichotomy of me wanting to see the favelas to see if they were like the ones in the film ‘City of God’ and me realizing how uncomfortable of a position we ourselves were in and putting the people of the community in by intruding their personal space really sheds light on some of the overlooked social problems that exists in Rio. My initial impressions of Rio was that it was a paradise of racial harmony and beautiful people on the beaches, and this is exactly how Rio is portrayed to foreign tourists, but with insight from the race relations professor and personal accounts on the streets of Rio and in the favela, I realized how naïve I was.
This trip to the favelas really opened my eyes to Rio’s subtle yet complex social inequalities.
4. Tour of Botanical Gardens
The Jardim Botanico or Botanical Gardens in the south zone of Rio is one of the most diverse and preserved gardens in the world located on the bottom of the Corcovado Mountain where the Christ the Redeemer statue sits. It was created in 1809 by John IV of Portugal and hosts over 6,000 different plant species around the world. Walking through the garden was an out of the body experience for me because I felt like how could there be so much peace and natural beauty in the middle of such a busy, growing city? But at the same time, the location of the garden seemed perfect because it mirrored so much of what made Rio, Rio: the diversity of the people, the calm yet lively and wild spirit of the ‘cariocas’, and the beauty as well as irony of the co-existence of nature and urban space.
3. Experience of Taste: Açai, brigaderos, and Caiparinhas
Visual experiences and images speak more than 1,000 words but experiences with food and taste go beyond words. There are fruit juice bars on almost every other corner in this city (which needs to be imported to US) and I fell in love with the açai drink, the super fruit that explodes with anti-oxidants. I also had a number of brigaderos, which are bite-size balls of sweet dolce de leche joy covered in chocolate sprinkles. The caramel is thick, chewy and melts in your mouth. The drink that really made this trip so fun was the signature caiparinha cocktail made from Brazilian sugarcane rum called Cachaça. It’s citrusy with the many crushed limes; it’s fresh and light and of course, smooth when made just right. I would get one to pair with my dinner, or at a bar in Lapa before I’d hit the dance floor. It’s a drink that goes well with any mood or setting.
2. Life of Caiçara in Paraty
My second most memorable experience was when we went to the fisherman islands in Paraty, a small colonial town about 4 hours south of Rio. Paraty was once a booming trade port for slaves and various goods in the 19th century and now is a preserved colonial and cultural site as well as a summer vacation hot spot. We went to the island of Caicara and met with one of the main leaders of the island who took us on a small trail that passed through people’s backyards and homes to a private beach.
We also feasted on a wonderful meal of fried fish, rice, beans, home made farofa (toasted flour with egg and onions), and sweets. I loved this day trip because I got to spend an entire day on an island where the people truly embrace their cultural history and practices to keep their local traditions alive through educating the youth, preserving their natural habitat, and sharing their life stories with total strangers like us.
1. Sunset at Arpoador rock
My final and most memorable part of the trip were the evenings I spent at the Arpoador rock (rock that divides Copacabana and Ipanema beach) with my friends to watch the sunset and surfers. Our hotel we stayed at was in the most convenient location, 5 minutes from Copacabana beach and 3 minutes from Ipanema so this iconic vista point was literally our backyard. We read a book by Ruy Castro called ‘Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Under Fire’ which talked a lot about what it means to be ‘carioca,’ and I most felt ‘carioca’ (the feeling and embrace of the culture and essence of Rio) when I sat upon the rocks of Arpoador with other fellow native cariocas and tourists. The act of being and relaxing as the sun set was truly paradise and definitely an experience that is motivating me to go back to Rio again. I’ve also fallen in love the Brazil’s soccer hero, Neymar so perhaps I will have to him in the 2014 World Cup!