In a city that's such a stunner-rich in so many different ways, poor in so many others-why do I keep remembering that odd little man standing outside the tram station at the foot of Corcovado Mountain?
I mean the man with the bloody knife sticking clear through his head. The man who blew incessantly on a shrill bird-call whistle hidden in his mouth. The man who jiggled his arms and legs like a puppet on tangled strings.
I guess I remember because he was so animated, so unselfconscious. He was frenetic in his efforts to sell us visitors his fool-the-eye rubber knives and those annoying whistles. He was noisy and flamboyant and relentlessly cheerful.
Clearly, Rio is his kind of town.
We were piling onto the train for the ride up Corcovado to the gigantic feet of Cristo Redentor, Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue, 100 feet tall and 2,100 feet above sea level. Those feet are immense, but our guide chose to impress us with another dimension, the statue's outstretched arms.
"The arms measure 28 meters, hand to hand-about 90 feet," said the guide. The arms, of course, are extended in a gesture of welcome, maybe the beginning of an embrace. The left points to the north side and the right to the south. Those arms are big, to be sure, and some cynics contend they should be folded in an imperious gesture meaning "get lost." But I had no time for that sort of controversy. I was too distracted by the view from Cristo's feet.
At the top of Corcovado, the panorama shows a city cleverly squeezed between hills, mountains and shoreline with a large lake in the middle, the Atlantic Ocean in its lap and a bright smile of white beachside apartment buildings. The mountains and hills include the enormous Tijuca National Park, a verdant jungle backdrop that nicely sets off all the urban concrete. That urban concrete, in turn, forms a solid wall of metropolitan splendor behind wide, white beaches that on hot days sport a colorful patchwork of Speedos, thong bikinis and suntans.
Back at sea level, the man with shrill whistle and knife through his head (thanks to a hidden hoop) was still hard at work, probably making some tourists wonder, "What sort of people are we dealing with?"
In an unfamiliar country, I'm always curious about the lives lived out in houses and apartments. I imagine that in the condos along the beach, residents might enjoy luxury similar to that offered by my hotel, the Rio Palace. Copacabana Beach lies just beyond the lobby in a district of high-rise residences with cafes at sidewalk level.
Hotel guests share with the apartment dwellers a wide promenade of curving black and white mosaic reminiscent of the Meeting of the Waters, where the black Rio Negro and the tan Rio Solimoes flow side by side near the port of Manaus before mixing with the Amazon.
There wouldn't be time to see inside the homes that surrounded us, but they looked as if they had the same amenities as the Rio Palace Hotel: big TV, marble in the bath, thick carpeting and probably a basket of fruit atop the coffee table. And, of course, our windows and theirs all frame those glorious green lumps of mountain that wade delightfully just offshore.
Between the luxury buildings, we could observe more housing of a different type crammed along the slopes of Serra da Carioca, the mountains that separate north Rio from south. On the sort of lofty real estate that sells for millions in Monaco, Rio's poor and slightly better-off occupy communities called favelas in structures that range from rain-soaked cardboard to solid brick. They have the best view of all.
A few of those residences are open to visitors, thanks to Rejane Reis. Through her business, Exotic Tours, Reis has trained neighborhood young people to escort curious outsiders through the biggest Rio favelas, including the one called Rocinha.
Reis' tourism workshop brings some money into the community, allows teenagers to practice languages other than their native Portuguese and fosters in the young people a little pride of place. After all, citizens of Rocinha enjoy the same beautiful vistas of Guanabara Bay as the people living in the hillside estates that adjoin their favela borders. In their crowded compounds, streets bustle with the same energy as the streets downtown. But they are narrow and steep, dirtier than the streets below and filled with cars mostly of earlier vintage.
"We are a city of 12 million, and 40 percent of the people live inside a favela," Reis told me. Tall and slender with light brown hair, she speaks rapidly and her eyes dance.
"Favela is just a word that means 'the whole area.' The favela we are visiting today has 200,000 people-the largest in Latin America. Its name is Rocinha. 'Roc' means a place where people plant vegetables, and 'inha' is a nice way to say some words: 'Rocinha.' People used to say, 'Let's go to Rocinha to buy vegetables,' and the name stayed like that after the vegetables were gone."
She turned my wife, Juju, and me over to Bruno David, a slim and enthusiastic 16-year-old wearing a floppy rain hat and the tour company's yellow T-shirt.
We moved rapidly through narrow alleyways and up and down stairways. At a wall adorned with skillfully rendered cartoons, David said, "This is the house of an artist. I would show you his place inside, but I don't think he is home now."
We peeked into a nearby doorway and saw a closet-sized emporium lined with tools and paint cans. "Here," David said, "we have a store with things for the house." He explained that some 1,200 businesses operate in Rocinha-some of them out on the major streets, but most tucked away like the hardware store.
In the maze of buildings, loud Latin rhythms bombarded us constantly. We passed tiny saloons just big enough to hold a pool table. We waved to people sitting at lunch counters, chapel pews and beauty salon hair dryers. At one noisy bar, a man put a long, twisted wooden horn to his lips and let out a deep blast that drowned out all the music in the alleys of Rocinha.
"If you like, we can stop for a soft drink, OK?" David offered. We did stop-at his neat little home, where his mother fed his newborn sister and watched television. We toured the house-orange walls, a handsome bathroom, a tidy kitchen. Out the window of his impressively neat bedroom, David pointed into the fog.
"When the day is clear, we can see the Cristo from here," he told us. Juju and I remarked that the house was quite handsome and prosperous-looking, hoping that we didn't sound surprised.
"We don't have bad conditions," David said, referring to his family's little segment of the favela. "I would like to be a lawyer some day. We are middle class, but middle class here is very very rare. We have in Rio poor people and rich people and not many in-between."
Back in the precincts of the relatively rich, traffic streams up Avenida Atlantica next to Copacabana Beach. Later, during the evening rush hour, it will stream down. All lanes go in only one direction during the peak periods. Judging by the reckless way a lot of Brazilians drive, that system probably would have happened naturally, even if authorities hadn't devised it.
At any time, the black and white pedestrian thoroughfare and the beach bear unnerving congestion of their own: joggers, walkers, beach goers with their special little chairs, erratic rollerbladers. They skirt past ranks of refreshment stands festooned with green coconuts, each stand painted a different bold color. On an island separating two of the many Atlantica lanes, brilliant green gas stations provide fuel for the maddening traffic-too fast, too erratic, too much like . . . Rio.
We did a few of the conventional visitor things, because we had not budgeted nearly enough time. Two other couples-one from Chile and one from elsewhere in Brazil-joined us in signing up for a nightlife tour.
First, we ate in a big restaurant that we had to access from the parking garage of a shopping mall. We dined in the Brazilian fashion. Waiters keep the meat coming-pounds and pounds-slicing roast beef, lamb and pork from long skewers and letting the pieces drop slowly to the plate.
After that, we boarded our underutilized motor coach and made our way to Plataforma, the theater/nightclub/folklore showplace that provides hurried visitors with a soupcon of traditional revelry during non-Carnaval months.
In song, dance and incredible acrobatics, the cast tried to depict Brazil's turbulent past: The tranquility of pre-history, the invasion of the Portuguese, the four centuries of Indian and African slavery serving the sugar, coffee and rubber barons. Plus-with added emphasis-the music and dance that resulted from so many different cultural influences.
But all historical narrative was lost in the storm of loud, brassy renditions of "Brazil" and the blur of half-naked male tumblers, hip-swinging chorines with enormous headdresses, and the ladies wearing impossibly complex feathered and sequined costumes who snaked their way up and down the runway.
According to the program, this spectacle depicted national heroes and the folks they led. Included were Zumbi, the African who fought for liberation of the slaves; Dom Pedro I, the breakaway Portuguese prince who declared Brazilian independence in 1822; Princess Isabel, who outlawed slavery in 1888; Chiquinha Gonzaga, the pop-music composer; and Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian bombshell of movie fame.
The show went on and on with plenty of action but no knives through the heads, no shrill bird calls. Just rivers of color, waves of shaking bodies, wailing trumpets, clattering bongo drums and joyful song-all of which could serve as a symbol of Rio itself and its tempestuous partnership with the wild beauty of South America.
E-mail Robert Cross: firstname.lastname@example.orgCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times