The next morning I woke up nice and early for my ‘Day in Rio’ tour. I opened the curtains and guess what? It was still raining. I was getting increasingly vexed with the weather in Rio. I knew it wasn’t summer yet but my misconceptions of sun drenched bodies laid sprawling on the beaches for as far as the eye could see were a far cry from the reality. I thought a little about last night. It wasn’t the best of starts to my year away. I realised I had been stupid and shouldn’t have been walking along a dark street, late at night, on my own, in South America. Rio, like any big city has its fair share of crime. The reality is that it probably has more than most due to its high levels of poverty coming from the favelas. And who better to rob than an unseasoned traveller who is still learning the difference between his arse and his elbow. It’s true that there is good and bad everywhere. I’d experienced the bad last night and was hoping the excursion today would show me the good. After a quick breakfast I was ready to face Rio and all she had to offer me!
And what an offering I was served. The excursion was phenomenal and I enjoyed every single minute of it. The minibus picked me up from the hotel at 9 bells and as I got in I noticed a few girls smiling. I smiled back and, trying to show off, I said, “Buenos dias!” but they just started laughing at me. One of the girls, a Brazilian called Germana, soon befriended me and explained that I had just said ‘good morning’ in Spanish and not Portuguese. Fortunately her English was fantastic so we had a good chat and I explained that I was just starting my trip round the world. She mentioned she was a doctor from the north and was just visiting Rio for a holiday. She was very nice and friendly.
After a while we stopped off at the first point of interest, Sugar Loaf Mountain. It was the first of several ‘wows’ for the day. To get to it we had to take a cable car. I was a little dubious as I wasn’t keen on heights. I also thought about what had happened to James Bond in the film ‘Moonraker’ on the very same cable car when the metal-mouthed baddie, Jaws, was after him and he had to jump for his life. However, I decided it wasn’t likely to happen to me even with my bad luck. The views in the cable car were amazing and at the top they were even more spectacular. Rio looked out of this world from up here. I fed some cute little monkeys that, bizarrely enough, lived up there. I also got on talking to two Argentinian girls, Dani and Luli, who were also on the tour. They too were super friendly and had lovely accents which were far more exotic than anything I was used to in Newcastle!
Next stop was the spellbinding Metropolitan Cathedral of San Sebastian. From the outside this soaring concrete edifice, based on the Mayan architectural style of pyramids and completed in 1979, looked quite ugly. But inside it was truly magnificent. There were four beautiful stained glass windows towering up to the ceiling. At the top they met up to make a massive cross-shaped skylight and, hanging down, there was a huge crucifixion carving. It was deeply moving. We just looked around in awe enjoying both the architecture and the ambiance. Even though I’m not really religious, I was taken aback by its beauty and sheer size.
We stopped at Copacabana, where I had been robbed the previous night, and had lunch in one of the busy restaurants. The food was superb. There was a buffet with an abundance of different salads and vegetables and the waiters kept coming up to our table with an endless flow of beef, pork and chicken. It was brought to us on massive skewers and carved directly onto our plate. I was in my element sampling the delicious food whilst sat at a table surrounded by pretty South Americans.
After stuffing our faces to a more than satisfactory level, the tour passed through where part of the Rio Carnival is held and then onto the Maracana Stadium, the largest football stadium in the world. It probably wasn’t the best time to visit it though as it was closed for building work. Next came one of the most amazing sites I had ever seen in my life, Christ the Redeemer. Located on the top of a mountain overlooking all of Rio, the bus weaved round and round as it ascended through the favelas set into the mountain and beyond. As we passed them I turned to my new Brazilian friend and commented on how difficult it must be to live in the slums. She explained that as there are so many problems with drugs and guns the police tend to stay away. I wouldn’t have been surprised if that is where the man who pulled the knife on me was from.
We went past Ronnie Biggs’ old house where he had lived after the Great Train Robbery, and then we rose through the jungle until we reached the top. We got out of the bus and then climbed the steps to the very top of the mountain where the statue was. Seeing this enormous vision of Christ sent shivers down my spine. It was immense and really beautiful up close. There was a thick mist all around which made me feel as if I was literally floating above the clouds. However, it meant the breathtaking views that we had seen at Sugarloaf Mountain could not be taken advantage of here, but it did help to create an eerie magical atmosphere. I managed to get some photos just in time as the mist came down even thicker so that you could barely even see his hands or head. I did feel a bit sorry for the people after us in the queue as Jesus, it would seem, had now miraculously disappeared.
The tour ended and I said goodbye to the lovely Germana who got off the bus before me. We exchanged emails and she gave me a kiss on the cheek. She had been an absolute gem with me and had made the tour an even bigger pleasure to be on. After she left I got on talking to the two Argentinian girls who I’d spoken to up Sugarloaf Mountain and we arranged to meet for a drink in a bar in Leblon later on.
So that evening I took a cab to the bar and had the most hilarious conversation with the driver on the way over. It was one of those crazy conversations where neither of you can speak the other person’s language but you still somehow manage to build a good little rapport. Not really knowing what the other person was saying, we talked none-stop about football and ended up in hysterics with each other. The night itself was lots of fun. It was raining again so we sat inside. The girls were so nice and we had a great time drinking and laughing. They were here on holiday from Rosario, north of Buenos Aires, and this was their first time out of Argentina. I told them about my trip and all of the places I would visit. They said that due to how expensive it would be for them, they could only dream of going on such a trip. It was quite humbling and made me realise how lucky I was.
I woke up the following morning feeling slightly groggy. It was the 1st of November and the first official day of the Gap Tour, ‘Coast to Coast’. It would see me go from Rio on the east coast to Lima on the west coast taking in some of the delights of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru in an awe inspiring 45 days. As I wasn’t meeting the guide and the people on my trip until the evening, I decided to do a bit of shopping for the trip ahead of me. Then I had a coconut drink along one of the many stalls along Copacabana. I had intended to read my book but the endless stream of hawkers selling their wares made it impossible.
After a while a shoe shiner with his box came up to me and asked if I would like to have my shoes cleaned. As I was wearing scruffy trainers and didn’t see the point I said no. However, he was very persistent and carried on talking to me for ages. He was feeding me some sob story about his poor family in the favelas. I mentioned the robbery the other night and he told me how a tourist had been murdered on the beach just a few nights ago. It didn’t really surprise me in the slightest. That could have easily been me. Eventually I took pity on him and let him shine my shoes. People must just see me coming! Anyway, the shoe shiner got onto the subject of drugs and said, ”I can get you coke, marijuana or hashish”.
‘So that’s what this was all about then’, I thought. ‘He uses the shoe shining as a cover for selling drugs, the sneaky bugger’. I politely refused his offer and after paying him a small sum for completing the utterly pointless task of shining my tatty trainers he was soon on his way, no doubt on the lookout for his next victim. It was clear that Rio, although intensely beautiful and with so much to offer, also had an ugly side. There was an all too apparent division between the rich and the poor. I felt crime was always lurking in the shadows, be it via the pimps, drug pushers or the psychopath who had robbed me. This did sadden me but I still thought Rio was an incredible place with a great vibe to it and I would have loved to have spent more time there if I had been able to.
In the evening I met the other travellers with whom I would be on the Gap Tour with. We were a group of 15. The majority were young and single but there was also the odd couple and one or two older people. There was a good mix of mainly Europeans from Britain, Germany, Italy and Denmark, together with an Australian, South African and Canadian thrown in for good measure. Everyone was very friendly and super excited for what lay ahead. That evening, as we bonded, we went to a restaurant in Copacabana for some typical Brazilian food, where, like the previous day, the meat was perpetually brought to us on skewers. The locals were having a great time drinking, eating and singing. Brazilians, I had noticed, were very noisy and extroverted. They certainly knew how to enjoy themselves!
Rio had been more than interesting but tomorrow it was time to move on. The Ilha Grande awaited me and my new travel companions.