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Day 56: Rio de Janeiro

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On the beach with Vik Muniz.
Michael Palin - BrazilAs we walk back into Vidigal he worries that the fast-moving changes in the favelas might not always turn out to be the good things they're intended to be. He points out a huge bundle of wires attached to an overhead electricity supply cable.

'See that? They call that a gato. A cat. It's all the leads taking free electricity from the system. If you want a power supply you get in the cat-man, and he goes up there and finds you a connection.'

Building, likewise, is completely unregulated. Children don't leave home when they grow up, they just attach another room to the house. Vik calls the process, with a touch of admiration, 'practicality and confusion'.

When pacification restores order to these neighbourhoods, and brings shanty towns into the mainstream, the people will suddenly find themselves having to pay for electricity and satellite and cable. They'll have to find money to pay for that extra room. One of the cornerstones of the occupation policy is to give people deeds to their homes, to enfranchise them by making them property holders. Admirable in intention, but Vik sees many favelados deciding to sell up and move elsewhere and, in the case of Vidigal, leaving some very desirable real estate to some very undesirable people.

Back down the hill we walk together on Arpoador, one end of Ipanema Beach, which Vik describes as the most expensive real estate in the Southern Hemisphere. From here I take a last look up at Vidigal, as picturesque as a Mediterranean village. And the man with the AK-47 is probably still on his chair, looking back at me.

Everything in Rio seems to come back to the beaches. Vik agrees. Beach life typifies the Brazilian attitude. It is a place where everyone is equal, where the body-obsessed culture and innate sense of tolerance come together.

'The beach is free. Everyone can be what they want. Nobody knows who you are or what you do. Just that you have a pair of Speedos just like them.'

We end up not far from the sound of the sea, at one of Vik's favourite places, Rio's best Bahian restaurant. He entertains us with impressions of characters from the hugely popular TV soap operas that are the theme music to all Brazilian life. He talks about football and how he supports Flamengo if he's in Rio, and Corinthians if he's in São Paulo, and how everyone makes jokes about the 'country cousins' who come from Minas Gerais. But most of all, on this unseasonably cool, grey day, we relive the pleasures of moqueca and acarajé and the flavours of okra and vanilla and palm oil and imagine ourselves back on the sunny squares of Salvador.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 56: Rio de Janeiro
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Rio de Janeiro
  • Book page no: 236

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  • Eating
  • Day 5 
  • Around the World in 80 Days
  • Day 3 
  • Full Circle
  • Day 6 
  • Pole to Pole