What is the first word that comes in your mind when I say Rio?
That was my question to a group of friends in a crowded bar in New York City after my trip to Rio and below were the answers-
‘Parrot? That talking blue parrot?’ (She meant blue macaw that’s almost extinct now)
‘Beaches, thongs, big butts……’ (Many men agreed with him)
‘Samba!’ (By the way, Africans passed on the pulsating rhythms of the Samba to the Brazilians during the days of slavery)
‘The Jesus doing T-pose.’ (She meant Christ the Redeemer on top of Mount Corcovado)
‘Ronaldinho?‘ (Football player)
‘Crimes, favelas, poverty.’ (Rio is one of the most violent cities)
‘Not a word, just a thought. I thought Rio was in Argentina.’ (I swear, one actually said so)
Each one of them had different opinions about Rio, which made me question what Rio de Janeiro really is.
Vinod and I were in Rio a month before the commencement of Rio Summer Olympics in 2016. The city was ready for the Olympics and people were excited about it.
‘First ever held in South America – the whole continent,’ our driver Juan proudly said. He was driving through the Maracanã Stadium – the second largest soccer stadium in the world. He pointed and said, ‘We will have an opening ceremony in this stadium.’
‘Is this the stadium where Brazil lost in 2014?‘ I asked about the FIFA World Cup 2014 where Brazil’s 7:1 defeat against Germany is considered the most shocking and humiliating defeat for Brazilians.
‘No, no, not here. That was semi-final. Not in Rio,’ Juan replied with a sneer, ‘Saddest day for us. Brazil was defeated by Uruguay in this stadium in the 1950 World Cup. I do not know which one is worse.’
Juan was not born in 1950, but he was willing to share his father’s grief on that day.
‘My father dressed up really trendy on that day. He said everyone was traumatized; stunned silence in this whole stadium. Some even went so far as to commit suicide after the game.
In fact, Pele (football legend) was 7 at that time saw his father crying while listening to the game on the radio and he told his old man that he would get the Cup. And in 1958, he did so.’
Juan did not stop talking about football until we reached the cable car station to go to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain. As we were looking at the city of Rio from the top of the mountain, suddenly an overly enthusiastic local man approached Vinod and asked, ‘India? Bollywood? Thoda thoda Hindi (I speak a bit of Hindi).’
He was just too happy to see an Indian man in Rio.
In the evening, Juan took us to Lapa neighborhood – downtown section of Rio – to explore Escadaria Selaron a staircase covered in more than 2,000 pieces of colorful tiles, mirrors and ceramics.
‘This is the product of this artist’s obsession and his madness. People mocked him and called him crazy,’ Juan said.
He was talking about the Chilean artist Jorge Selaron who moved to this poor neighborhood in 1990. He randomly started renovating steps that sat across his house, covering them with bright tiles. He wandered around the city looking for antique shops and trash piles to find tiles for his steps. As his notoriety grew, people began sending or bringing tiles from around the world.
Suddenly, a local woman came running towards Vinod and pointed at ceramic tiles with images of Hindu Gods.
‘See, I told you- you get tiles from any part of the world,’ Juan teased Vinod.
We explored other places in Rio – Christ the Redeemer, parks, street arts, beaches, beach sand arts, mountains, Favela – we realized it is next to impossible to experience every spirit of Rio in one trip.
So back to the crowded bar in NYC, my friends asked,
‘So, what is Rio?‘
I did not have any answer. I think Rio really does not have any distinct identity. It will take one lifetime to discover and understand Rio. No wonder every other person has a different opinion about Rio – exotic women, beaches, carnival, football, parrots, crime, poverty, Olympics 2016 – Rio is everything.
Rio is what you dare to experience in the city. That’s Rio.
If you are in Rio, visit Sugarloaf Mountain, Christ the Redeemer and other popular tourist destinations. But we highly recommend that if you are in Rio, let go of your fear and explore the city like the locals. And yes, do not miss the street arts of Rio.
Check out the gallery from Rio below: