Looking down from the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain, the sunshine sparkles off the sky blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean like a billion camera flashes. Down on the flat lands where the rich people live, concrete tower blocks sprout through the vegetation. As the gradient gets steeper, favelas cling like limpets to the sides of mountains.
Despite appearances, Rio de Janeiro is not paradise. Our first stop on a fifteen month backpacking trip around the world, we arrived at the height of summer with the faint odour of citrus and rotting fish wafting through the streets.
Wherever you go in Rio there are people (11 to 13 million at the best estimate) squeezed on to every single inch of habitable land. The city’s booming economy (so booming that C&A and Blockbuster still haven’t gone bust yet) is fuelled by a huge excess of expendable labour from rural Brazil and beyond.
Jobs are created for the sake of it. In elevators there are people employed to press the buttons. It’s not uncommon to see four or five people manning a single cash register in shops. Security guards never patrol in groups of less than three.
It makes for a busy, sweaty and noisy city. Wherever you go it’s impossible to get away from the sound of traffic. Drivers (whose road etiquette is best summed up as ‘white knuckle’) beep their horns to let other drivers know that they are changing lanes, turning corners, over taking, under taking, stopping, starting or maintaining a constant pace.
We’d heard a lot about danger in Rio. I have been wondering for some time whether my wheelchair makes us a more or less likely target for machine gun wielding, favela dwelling muggers. The abundance of police (who are never in groups of less than five) didn’t make us feel much safer as they too carried machine guns.
When we first arrived, we would walk to and from our hostel in Botafogo briskly at night time with a sense of purpose. Sometimes I would leave a burning cigarette hanging from my bottom lip to blend in with the locals – our pasty white British skin and £4,000 wheelchair being the only giveaway that we were in fact tourists.
It was impossible not to notice all the pensioners and pregnant women roaming the streets at night time too. Most of them were openly carrying purses and backpacks, and none of them were being mugged.
Supposedly the crime rates are even lower up in the favelas, with violence mainly only occurring at the boundaries between settlements where rival gangs collide. Despite our love of a lack of crime, we chose not to visit the favelas – we get enough poverty porn watching Channel 4 back in England.
Regardless, throughout our seven day stay in Rio, we were not mugged. Not even once.
As I trundled in my wheelchair along the famous black and white art deco cobbles of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, I couldn’t help notice the prevalence of bulbous posteriors. The big arsed women were all wearing g-strings whilst the skinny ones covered up with shorts or skirts.
In Europe we prefer bony, concave arse cheeks. In Rio de Janeiro, scrawny rumps are shunned and big arses celebrated. Adverts for prostitutes stuck on the sides of phone boxes all emphasise the size and quality of the host’s arse. Even the women on the fronts of Brazil’s glossy magazine covers face with their arse towards the camera.
The nearest I came to an up close and personal encounter with a big Brazilian arse was whilst wading in the less clean than expected Copacabana sea. The tide was too rough for me to stand up without falling over, and so instead I just lay drifting in the currents letting the waves wash over me, occasionally paddling left or right a bit to avoid stray carrier bags and bottle tops.
Without warning, a large wave sploshed over my head. The force of the wave was weak enough for me to be able to maintain buoyancy, but the drag from the backwash was too strong. I paddled frantically but my trajectory seemed set in stone as my face careened towards a colossal derrière like the Millennium Falcon in the grip of a Death Star tractor beam.
She took a single step forward, and my face was saved from impact by mere millimetres.
I began to think that Rio de Janeiro’s vibrant music scene mainly grew out of a need to drown out the sound of cars and buses. Every bar, café, street vendor and shopping mall blared out jazz or samba or some god awful Portuguese speaking version of James Blunt. It was blessed relief.
On our final night in Rio we were invited by one of my girlfriend’s former Camden Council work colleagues, Ines, to watch samba master Paulinho de Viola playing live in the famously lawless district of Lapa. We were advised not to carry anything in our pockets whilst in Lapa, so I sat with my camera, wallet and hostel room keys under my wheelchair seat cushion, poking in to my svelte European bum cheeks.
Now aged 71, Paulinho and his ukulele reminded me of every single song on the City Of God soundtrack. Everyone in the audience knew all the words except us, and they danced along, thrusting their hips and big arses in to one and other.
When the concert was over, we sat down to drink yet another Caipirinha – Brazil’s national cocktail that tastes like a noxious concoction of lime and paraffin.
“I’ve wanted to come to Rio ever since I was five years old. It’s my dream city,” said Ines, who originally hails from Brazil’s old colonial master, Portugal.
“But there’s so much misery here. And they blame us Portuguese for everything. The crime, the corruption, the lack of infrastructure – even though we were kicked out of Brazil, what, two hundred years ago?!? And they take the piss out of my accent!” she cackles. “So whenever anyone here asks, I tell them I’m from Argentina.”
Rio de Janeiro is not paradise. It is a dirty, smelly, living, breathing, seething, sprawling mass of a place, and the perfect antidote to the sterile British offices my girlfriend and I used to work in.
We couldn’t think of a better way to start our fifteen month backpacking trip around the world in a wheelchair.