Last weekend, I went to Rio de Janeiro.
You know Rio…incredible scenery, beautiful people, historical landmarks, and world-famous beaches….and let’s not even get started on the samba and Carnaval.
So I had big expectations when I got on the plane Saturday morning, snickering to myself that São Paulo’s weather forecast predicted a gray, rainy, weekend.
I flew over the clouds, imagining myself listening to “Corcovado” at the top of Corcovado, lounging on Ipanema beach to the tune of “The Girl from Ipanema”, walking along the boardwalk of Copacabana, all the while the sun shining down, the blue sky a spectacular backdrop for the panorama of mountains and Cristo Redentor that surrounds the white sand and sea.
As the plane descended below the clouds, the excitement was palpable and I couldn’t wait to see that picturesque view…
….but it was gray. All gray. It was cloudy. It was rainy. Even the sea looked dull and the mountains blended together in the mist, cloud of fog hiding the majestic peak of Pão de Açucar (Sugarloaf Mountain). I couldn’t believe it. I admit, I hadn’t checked the weather report. But….wasn’t it always sunny in Rio? When have you ever pictured its famous beaches drowned in storms? It hadn’t even occurred to me that it could happen. It was rainy. In Rio.
This was especially disappointing to me because my entire weekend had been planned around the idea of doing nothing but sitting in the sun and taking panoramic pictures from the tops of various famous mountains. But I wasn’t going to let a little rain stop me. Dammit, I was going to go to the beach anyway!
And I did. I dropped my things at the hotel, slathered on my SPF 50 sunscreen (hey, you never know, and after Porto de Galinhas, I’m not taking any chances), and marched myself down to Copacabana beach, all the while hearing Barry Manilow singing about Lola the showgirl (I know, it’s not even the same Copacabana…but anyway). Copacabana is a unique beach, because it has the strange ability to house the entirety of Rio (or at least 10% of it) without ever really feeling crowded. Maybe that’s because, with 4.5 kilometers of pure white shoreline, there’s enough room for everybody. Or maybe it’s because everyone’s got their own thing going on. Some people are playing football. Some people are playing volleyball. Some people are playing in the sand. Some people are selling things. Some people are buying things. Some people are conspicuously making out with their significant other and bordering on “get a room” behavior. And some people, like me, are just sitting and taking it all in. It was like watching life happen. Everything goes on at the beach. When I tired of the sand, I took to the famous black-and-white tiled boardwalk and wandered up and down the city’s edge, smelling roasted corn and beer and lime and coconut, seeing a hundred different blankets laid out with t-shirts, jewelry, wooden crafts, and everything else you can imagine. I sat under an umbrella at a little botiquim and had a beer. Yes, by myself. And watched life happen, on the beach.
On Sunday morning, I awoke, hopeful that the night had cleared away the clouds and rain, but even as I opened my eyes, I sensed that the light behind the curtains was dim and faded.
I hadn’t thought it possible, but it seemed that Sunday was even darker, dimmer, rainier, and grayer than Saturday had been. I hesitated at the thought of traipsing around Rio all day under an umbrella, but then I decided that I didn’t know when I’d be back in Rio, if ever, and that I should take advantage of the time I had. I had already paid for the tour, anyway.
So at 8:30, I boarded a bus full of tourists, me the only non-Brazilian and the only English speaker, and headed out for a tour of the city. We passed a bunch of things that I didn’t particularly care about, including the favelas (slums…which I found increasingly strange as they highlight the picturesque disorder of these vast areas as a tourist attraction even while denying their inhabitants the most basic resources…), before finally reaching the cable car station at Pao de Açucar. Despite the menacing clouds that shadowed the high peak, we paid our 44 reais to take the trip to the top in the cable car. As we waited, we saw the cables disappear into the mist, the cars reappearing suddenly out of the whiteness on their descent to the station. On the way up, we took as many pictures as we could until the shore, the city, and everything else faded from view and we were left surrounded by white.
At the top of the mountain, the air was cool and windy, and as we could see absolutely nothing, I sat on a bench and ate an ice cream, imagining the sweeping vistas I might have been otherwise enjoying.
We finally descended, heavy with failure, just in time to see the clouds sweeping away from the peak and exposing the rock (and, therefore, the view from the top). Such is my luck.
After one unsuccessful attempt at tourism, I was wary of trying to get to the top of Corcovado. The air was still gray, still rainy, still heavy with clouds. But that voice again told me that I didn’t know if I’d ever have another chance to be here in the Cidade Maravilhosa, and I had better make the best of it.
So it was that, late in the afternoon, we all boarded the old-time train that would carry us up the steep 2,329-foot incline to the peak of Corcovado mountain, and to Christ the Redeemer, hidden in the mist. The train travels through the Tijuca National Park, a forest of the most rainforest-looking trees and vines I have seen since I arrived in Brazil. At times, the thick foliage and deep green would open up, revealing outstanding vistas that would have been incredible had we actually been able to see them.
At the top, the scene was almost like being in a blizzard. The air was cold and moist, thick with fog and very ominous. We looked around us, waiting to be greeted by the open arms of the 30-meter-tall Christ the Redeemer, which I have wanted to see in person since I saw the opening credits of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in 1996 (yeah, I know it’s a weird reference, but that’s where I first saw it).
But he was nowhere to be seen. We were 5 meters from a 30-meter-tall statue…and we couldn’t see a thing. His vague outline hovered above us, a Christ-shaped shadow in the fog. But, like any test of the faithful, even though we couldn’t see him, we still had to believe that he was somehow there. So we took pictures anyway, and lingered at the top, contemplating the impenetrable fog that rose up to meet us when we peeked over the ledge. And then, finally, defeated, we took the train back down into the warmer air and the darkening gray of early dusk.
On the bus back home, I decided that the saving grace to my failed endeavors would be a final walk along Copacabana and some shameless souvenir-buying, followed by a really good dinner at the much-hailed Cafeina. So I freshened myself up and prepared for a night out. I stepped out of my hotel and was anticipating the long swath of white sand when I realized that the grayness had given way to a full-blown storm. On the shore, the wind was whipping and the palm trees swayed helplessly from side to side. The sellers had all gone home, and with them, my souvenirs and my saving grace. There was nothing I could do but make it up to myself with a plate of fantastic shrimp pasta at the cafe (after an attempted robbery of my phone – to really cap off the day), while I contemplated my weekend and chalked it all up to my typical bad luck.
I don’t know what it is about me – I am always going places, but to be honest, I have terrible bad luck when it comes to traveling. I always seem to arrive when there’s bad weather, or something’s under construction, or I’m a week late for the biggest festival of the year.
So I can only hope that if I visit Rio twice, Fate will grant me a repreive and some blue skies. Otherwise, I’m going to the Amazon…just don’t tell Fate.
Photos here for your contemplation. Misery loves company, after all…