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Day 48: Rio de Janeiro

Michael Palin - BrazilA big storm shakes the doors and rattles the windows in the early hours. Forked lightning over the Atlantic and dawn breaks over a colourless Copacabana Beach. Wisps of low cloud spread around the peaks and islets. Such a contrast from yesterday. And a contrast in subject matter too. We've been invited by Marjorie Marchi to accompany her to her place of work at the Governor's office. No leafy gardens or soaring statues today, just a grimy square close to Central Station. The rain, the rough sleepers, the rubbish in the gutters and the warning that this is a very dangerous area doesn't raise the spirits, but Marjorie seems on good form. She looks a little less hot and bothered than on the day of the parade, and is executively dressed in a white cotton blouse, black skirt, black stockings and black high-heeled shoes. Her wig is tied in a ponytail and she sports a pair of dangling diamante earrings. We cross the road, dodging in front of lines of buses three deep, dropping off the workers and picking up arrivals at Central Station. In front of us, behind tall, black railings, looms the State Governor's office. It's part of a huge complex, Art Deco in style and built, I should think, in the 1930s, not long after the Redentor first rose above Rio. It reminds me of another icon of the Great Depression, the Rockefeller Center in New York.

An absurd security problem at the main entrance. Although we are guests of a man dressed in women's clothes, our sound recordist is turned back for wearing shorts. Men in skirts are fine, but men in shorts apparently not. I suspect this is a clash of the systems. An old, bureaucratic dress code meeting the new respect for the minority rights, which a liberal State Governor sees as a vital ingredient of his policy of cidadania – citizenship. A man can wear women's clothing because Rio state law now recognizes and protects the right of a man to do so. In the rush towards tolerance and inclusivity it seems that men who choose to dress as men have been left behind.

Dulce, our Brazilian fixer, takes Seb off to buy some trousers at the nearby 'very dangerous' market, and the rest of us have no option but to wait in the yard in front of the building. The rain has lessened, but it's cold, and I never thought I'd feel cold in Rio. In the distance, across the square and rising behind the market, is an almost sheer hillside to which buildings cling tenuously. This is the favela of Providência. It's one of the worst, always in the news for clashes between drug gangs. Marjorie is deeply concerned about the new phenomenon appearing on Rio's streets. Crack cocaine. Addictive, destructive and, for now, very cheap. The drug gangs had kept it out of Rio for a long time because profits were so low. Now all that's changing.

'I am afraid,' says Marjorie. And she's not a woman who looks easily frightened.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 48: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 201

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