What didn’t happen in Rio

Let me count the negatives: We didn’t get mugged. Didn’t get kidnapped for ransom. Didn’t ride in any vehicles targeted by carjackers. Didn’t get killed in or by a car. Didn’t get hit by a stray bullet.

As I type these words, we have almost two full days left here. So anything still could happen. Steve, who is not normally a nervous Nellie, declared years ago that he would not go to Brazil, Rio in particular, because it sounded so dangerous. He changed his mind, obviously, and not only have all those things not happened; we’ve had a blast, constantly awestruck by the beauty of the natural setting — at least the equal of Hong Kong or San Francisco. At the same time, I have to admit it’s not that Rio isn’t dangerous. The New York Times a few months ago reported on how many times schools have had to close — this year — because the gun-fighting around them was too intense. We read that the Army recently established martial law in some of the favelas (the hillside slums), and things briefly improved. But then the soldiers moved out, and life in those sections have gotten more hellish again.

Because of those reports, we decided with some regret not to take a favela tour, as our close friend Howard Z did a few years ago. He thought it was great, and we really wanted to do it but in the end deemed it an unnecessary risk; we’ve have too much else to do.

Rio has a bunch of grand old buildings, and we got a big dose of them and their history during our walking tour on the first day.

Ones like this, the Municipal Theater

Thursday morning we headed to the recently revamped downtown waterfront. Many things about it reminded us of San Diego, though our city has nothing to compare with Rio’s Museum of Tomorrow in looks or originality of content.

Friday (yesterday) we devoted to the city’s two most iconic high points. First we took a tram up Corcovado mountain to visit Christ the Redeemer (and the stunning panorama he commands).Then we went to Sugarloaf Mountain, whose peak is accessed by a cablecar.

We’ve gotten around to all these sights by almost every mode of transportation possible: metro, city bus, street car, taxis, and Uber. (The last has been best: cheap, ubiquitous, and safe — or so it feels.) The two peak visits felt as modern and efficient and sunny as any major tourist attractions anywhere.

Last night we ubered to Lapa, renowned for its thriving music scene.We had a good time, but we were even more delighted by our experience the previous evening. We’d taken a taxi to an old churrascaria famed for its garlicky grilled sausage and steaks. The restaurant was jammed, as was the sidewalk around it, but by some miracle we snagged a table. We ate a great meal, then wandered to the little park across the street. There vendors had set-up makeshift bars on the equivalent of boards and bricks — full bars offering not just bottled sodas and beer but also draft beer and hard liquor. (This blew the minds of we who live in an country filled with alcohol control boards.) A stage was set up, and around 8:30, a beautiful black woman began singing — mostly r&b and pop standards, all in English — to a large crowd of Rio residents of all ages. Couples were stroking and hugging one another. This feels like the most hedonistic city we’ve ever visited. Some people were dancing. Everyone was moving, transported by the lovely night and the alcohol and the music.

Please understand: we’ve seen much that reminds us of Rio’s darker side. Santa Teresa (the neighborhood where we stayed the first two nights) may have made us think of the Hollywood Hills. But you don’t see razor wire and broken bottle glass cemented into the tops of the walls around people’s homes in Hollywood. Those appear to be de rigueur in Santa Teresa, which faces a huge favela just across the canyon.

Graffiti and busted up sidewalks and people sleeping on the street are commonplace, along with awareness that you can’t go walking down just any street. The deadly streets conjoin the safe ones. It reminds me or New York in the late 70s.

Or I think of LA or Chicago right now. Rival drug gangs kill each other in armed shootouts, and sometimes a little kid eating breakfast in her home in Compton or Englewood dies a bloody death, victim to a stray, unintended bullet. The tourists laughing and taking pictures on Navy Pier or breakfasting on lattes and luscious pastries in Santa Monica may not even hear about that day’s tragedy.

Steve and I at least are aware that bad things are happening here. But we sit next to the huge picture windows of our hotel and we eat our yogurt and amazing mangos and papayas, and excuse us, but we’re very happy.

We had beer and fried fish balls and crab pastries yesterday at the Urca Bar, beloved by Anthony Bourdain and Howard Z. You take your food to the seawall and enjoy the mellow scene.

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