Indy intern Rebecca Bachman ended 2009 by jetting more than 6,000 miles to Rio de Janeiro. She moved from UCSB, North America’s beach university, to Pontifícia Universidade Católica, South America’s beach university. But, save for the waterfront, the city couldn’t be more dissimilar from our relatively quiet beachside community with its Carnival, beaches thronged with thong-clad Cariocas, fanatical futebol, and favelas. Follow her as she lives and studies in Rio well into Brazil’s July winter.
Of all unlikely places, I suppose I’d best begin with Roy. He and I shared the right side of aisle six all the way from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. A New Yawkah born and raised (complete with a Mets T-shirt, an affinity for “hawt black cawfee,” and a wickedly sarcastic demeanor), he tells me how he spends one week per January in Rio de Janeiro. Not surprising. Except that he spent his younger years wandering the planet and has certainly accumulated more global adventures by 45 than the average New Yorker does in a lifetime. He’s filled to the brim with tales that feature faraway settings and foreign characters.
And here I am — a measly exchange student, avid but young traveler, and learner of languages, who has just finished an internship with The Independent. How could my adventures possibly compare to this ’70s and ’80s rock enthusiast/backpacker-turned-algebra professor? He has somehow experienced profuse foreignness but also managed to soak up so much New Yorker that you can’t even tell, all while embarking on his annual Rio rendezvous. Granted, he’s had twice as long as I have, but that’s not the point.
Why, after all his time wandering from Europe to Asia, with a particularly memorable period of hash-smoking in the ’80s in Afghanistan with a horse-riding, giant rifle-clad man whose face Roy describes as “indescribable — like maybe he hadn’t washed the dirt off his face in his entire life,” does Roy choose to return here?
Roy finishes a story about a three-day train ride through eastern Turkey (along with his airplane beef), pops a mysterious bronzish pill, mumbles something about not sleeping last night, and passes out, mouth wide open and upward-facing, hair squished against the window of the plane. And I contemplate:
Is it the party scene that draw Roy to Rio? The beaches? The warm Southern Hemisphere Atlantic out of which giant, mossy, mountainous rocks protrude, creating a mystical landscape? Or maybe the position of one of the most complexly flawed but beautifully bustling cities in the world on the edge of the Amazon Rainforest. It might be the fact that the bugs and the snakes and the spiders — like the rainforest and the river — are so damn enormous. But probably not. Maybe, opposite the draw of Santa Barbara, it’s the unmistakable presence of highly organized gangs, heavy weapons, and drugs. And the horribly flawed class structure. The evidence of all of this in the favelas (slums) that make up one-third of the city. Perhaps the international ambience of the wealthier neighborhoods draws Roy in. Of course, there is a woman in Rio for Roy. But there must be more to his perpetual return than that.
On my way from the airport to Ipanima, a touristy neighborhood right in the Centro and on the beach, and then to São Conrado — the neighborhood in the Zona Sul where I will live for a while smack dab between a lively, violent favela and the wealthiest beach town in Rio — I observe the drastic changes from one spot to the next. The favelas, the beach, the drugs, the guns, the bikes, the 100 degree weather, the shirtless perfect bodies, the tans, the music, the dancing, the food, the sports, the language…
There’s not one thing about Rio that makes it an addicting, crazy city. It’s the fact that so much is going on, and that every bit of it is dynamic, and it’s all beneath one giant statue of Jesus on the highest protruding green rock. This city’s crazy. It’s a chaotic mess. One that’s stuck right between the jungle and the ocean.
Unlike Roy, I’ll be here for another six months, studying at the Pontifícia Universidade Católica. I’ll be here for the rest of summer, for Carnival, and the change from unbearably scorching weather to a little more bearably scorching weather. I’ll see Rio’s continued preparation for the 2016 Olympics, and the continued chaos and struggle between gangs and the police.
For now, I’ve got to get myself from arriving mode to living mode; from wandering mode to I’ve-got-to-get-to-class mode. The transition will obviously be a thrill — check out the resultant weekly reports from Rio!