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january 2, 2005 -> reveling in rio  

It was the holiday season in Rio de Janeiro.  The mannequins in every shop window wore white, as would any fashionable ‘carioca' (the local name for Rio's citizens) on New Year's Eve.  Workers were busy assembling the stages, bleachers and kiosks for the musical and pyrotechnic extravaganza – ‘Reveillon' - that would pack more than a million revelers onto Copacabana beach.  While the northern hemisphere celebrated the Nativity with snowball fights and Christmas carols, Rio would exult with sweat and samba.  The truly iconic statue of Christ atop Corcovado Mountain looked down upon the circular laguna, where a huge, twinkling Christmas tree floated on pontoons.  Many shops were already closed or kept abbreviated hours; an extended vacation that locals joked would last until late February, after ‘Carnivale.'  

Brasilia is the capital of Brazil, and Sao Paolo its largest city, but Rio de Janeiro is the country's heart.  Natural beauty, urban mayhem, imperial history, and cultural efflorescence combine in an admixture as intriguing and delicious as Brazil's national cocktail, the ‘caipirinha.'  The city is wedged between granite gumdrops, golden beaches (‘praias') and the blue sea.  The people are tan, attractive and variously hued; black, white, red, and yellow mix in the blood and on the streets in a way not seen anywhere else.  For several decades, Rio was the seat of the Portuguese Empire (the king had fled Europe at the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars,) a mark of prestige that bequeathed the city with many beautiful buildings and cultural traditions.  The music is different, the dancing is different, and the food and drink are different.  Tourists love Rio, and cariocas can't imagine leaving it. 

The contours of Rio de Janeiro are as curvaceous and alluring as the bodies of its famous women: the wide sweep of Copacabana Beach; the jutting, rounded outcrops of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf mountains; and the moist fertility of the interstices between barrios.  The sea is everywhere, and smooth, bald islands rise offshore.  In the relationship between the city and its geography, it is something like a mix of Hong Kong (great peaks, densely populated) and Sydney (a perimeter of beautiful bays and beaches) – but the whole is more unique, more exciting, more dangerous, and sexier than either.  Despite the rash of ‘60s hotels and residential towers that rise behind its most famous beaches, and its periphery of guilt-inducing ‘favelas' (poor neighborhoods made infamous by the movie “City of God”) Rio is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  It is certainly the most exotic. 

It is difficult for new arrivals to grasp the geography of Rio.  That is why so many choose to visit one (or both) of its famous viewpoints on the first day.  Jostling for space beneath the outstretched arms of Christ, tourists at the crowded Corcovado (“Hunchback”) viewpoint have the most panoramic view of Rio.  From the much lower (but more spacious) platform atop Sugarloaf, one has an intimate vantage of the beaches and bays inside Guanabana Bay, as well as a perfect line down Brazil's most famous praias: Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon.  Even the early Portuguese were confused by Rio's jumbled topography and convoluted bays.  One of the most amusing facts about Rio de Janeiro (which means “January River” in Portuguese) is that there is no river.  The first Portuguese that surveyed the area erroneously assumed that Guanabana Bay must have a fresh water source. 

In Rio, life truly is a beach, and beach life reaches its apogee here.  Women whose coffee-colored skin and voluptuous bodies could tempt a bigot showcase their talents in tiny bikinis.  Fit young men strut about in the male version of “Daisy Dukes.”  Light, happy, unfamiliar music blasts from little kiosks selling coconuts and caipirinhas.  Beach boys will rent you a chair and a parasol; roving vendors sell you drinks, T-shirts, and snacks; and masseuses have set up tables under the few trees behind the beach.  The different stretches of beach are ‘segregated' according to the number of the lifeguard stand behind them: tourists at #2, gays at #6, middle-aged Brazilians at #12, etc.  Just a few blocks back from the beach are the unique and ubiquitous ‘sucos' cafes, where exotic fruit juices and tasty cheeseburgers are available for cheap. 

There is trouble in paradise, however.  Hundreds of armed police officers stand watch along the beaches, which are dangerous to walk along at night.  Unguarded items will disappear while you snooze in a sun chair, and even the locals leave their jewelry and cameras at home.  In the end, the majority of Rio's citizens are quite poor, and the clustered presence of so many rich locals and tourists on its beaches and upscale neighborhoods make petty crime inevitable.  Common sense is the best precaution; taxis are cheap and plentiful.  That said, we walked or took local transport most places and had no problems. 

While in Rio, we relied on the hospitality and local knowledge of Gabriela and Marcelo (a Brazilian couple that we met in Namibia) and Marcelo's herpetologist brother, Ronaldo, who put us up in his flat.  They showed us the best places to visit and took us to the best restaurants.  Blowing our budget never felt so good.  We faked the Samba (poorly) at the Carioca Cultural Center, visited the historic Centro, and hung out in the bohemian barrio of Santa Theresa.  We ‘porked out' in Porcao, a gluttonous churrascaria overlooking Guanabana Bay, and dined at the chic Sushi Leblon in our shorts, T-shirts, and quintessentially Brazilian “Havaianas” sandals.   

Serendipitously, three friends of mine from The University of Chicago were also in Rio during Reveillon.  We met up with Suman and Anjali Ganguli at a local ‘boteco' in Flamengo, and the next day on the rooftop of their hotel overlooking Copacabana Beach.  On our last day in Rio, we finally tracked down Billy Lan, who was still trying to recover from several frantic nights of partying with his friends from San Francisco. 

On New Year's Eve, we dressed in our new white outfits and celebrated in a beautiful home at the base of Sugar Loaf.  We had given up on trying getting to Copacabana before midnight.  Traffic was at a standstill, in part due to the knots of drunken partiers who sang, danced, banged drums and launched terrifyingly loud cherry bombs into the air.  We were having too much fun anyway.  A supremely decadent moment - which we will always remember - was the caterer pouring us fresh glasses of champagne as we toasted 2005 and watched fireworks light up the bay.