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Day 55: Rio de Janeiro

Michael Palin - BrazilOur time in Rio is nearly up and I'm aware that we have spent most of it in the landmark-studded Southside of the city – the Rio of the postcards and the ads, where you're lulled to sleep by the sound of the surf, and wake up every morning with a breathtaking beachside view. Where you're never far from the arms of Christ or the sight of the cable car looping up to Sugar Loaf Mountain. And it's all that most visitors ever see. Which is why I'm very curious about what we shall find as we leave our comfort zone and head north.

At first it gets only smarter. Our route skirts the affluent playground of Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, an inshore lake with smart and desirable residences around its shores, as well as all sorts of facilities supplying the ever-present need for sport and exercise. A seven-and-a-half-kilometre (four-and-a-half-mile) jogging and cycling circuit winds around it, and already at this early hour a number of rowing eights and individual scullers are out on the water. For those less energetic, there are pedaloes shaped like swans. And if you're a rich and successful Cariocan you can join the private sports clubs and play tennis behind high hedges. With mountain and forest framing the lake (the inconvenient favelas that once were here were removed in the 1960s and 1970s) it is a picturesque alternative to the more frenetic beaches. Past the lake, the road north takes us under the mountains through the long Rebouças tunnel, from which we emerge at brief intervals apparently having been transported in just over three kilometres from the city to the middle of the jungle. This is the Tijuca Forest, the world's largest urban forest, and yet another of Rio's natural wonders. The National Park that bears its name covers nearly forty square kilometres (fifteen square miles) of the city's boundaries. And it's big enough to get lost in. I'm told that people often do.

Emerging eventually from the last section of the tunnel, we head east and run along the edge of Guanabara Bay, by way of a beautifully landscaped parkway which leads up onto elevated highways with views of the docks. Though smaller ships still unload here, much of the area is now derelict. Soaring chimneys and silos give it a certain grandeur as do the long rows of warehouses, whose extensive blank walls have proved irresistible to the graffitistas, with some magnificent results. As in many cities around the world, the docks in Rio are seeing a new life as a cultural quarter. Beneath a flyover, in some dark, post-industrial canyon, I catch sight of queues already forming for another day of the Rio film festival.

Our journey's goal is to meet a young Englishman called Luke Dowdney who, in 2000, launched Luta Pela Paz (Fight for Peace), one of the more successful of the initiatives that have been launched to help disadvantaged street children. He chose to locate it in one of the most notoriously dangerous communities, the Complexo da Maré, a favela that remains unpacified.

As we enter the Zona Norte the look of the city changes. The peaks are gone. The land flattens out. There are no lakes or green swathes of forest to break the urban sprawl. Trucks seem to outnumber cars as the roads roll, long and straight, through featureless, built-up areas. Our driver is unsure of himself. There are, as usual, no signposts indicating the presence of a favela. We keep pulling over. Phone calls are made.

Finally we turn off the main highway and park in a side street beside a packing and freighting plant. As delivery trucks reverse into loading bays, people trudge past us on the way to the main road. Old men, younger men, one or two stopping to look through a pile of rubbish in the hope of finding something recyclable, single women off to work in town, mothers with children. They all look very different from the people who walk the promenades of Copacabana. Their faces are resigned, their expressions sometimes hard, sometimes just dull. They're not walking for their health. They walk because they can't afford not to.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 55: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 225

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