I have landed and negotiated a cab, and am utilizing all my reserves to keeping alert. I pass a business card with the address written on the back of it to the driver. It’s Saturday night and I’m staring out of window squished on the back seat with my suitcase, laptop and small rucksack. The place is hot and teaming with people and the city passes quickly by me, and apparently my driver cannot find the road.
Finally the taxi pulls up outside Maria’s apartment in the Flamengo area. It’s a narrow one way tree lined street which act as canopies to shade the pedestrian during the day. For the duration of the stay I have booked myself into an apartment via AirBnB in the Copacabana area, which I’m not checking into until the following day. I met Maria last year at the Semana do Bebe conference in Recife and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She has let me stay here on my first night.
It’s an 1950’s apartment block and after seeing her number written down I am now physically pressing the bell and I hear Maria’s voice. I wait a few moments and see her walking out of the lift. She smiles as she walks to greet me towards the main entrance door and unlocks it. With her red bobbed hair and floaty summer dress I feel out of place and dressed in my travel socks! Both laughing we greet each other and go back through the lobby to lift. It’s one of those rickety metal gate lifts that’s preserved of the era. She pulls the door shut and the gate automatically runs across and we watch the floors pass as we climb higher. Her apartment is cool and spacious with a lovely polished parquet floor. The kitchen leads into a utility area which then opens out to a balcony, and I feel the warm night air again. I look up and see the illuminated sculpture of Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado) looking down on us. This is a much more impressive view at night.
There is something totally fantastic about knowing someone who already lives in the new place you’re visiting. It’s like having a back stage pass to a concert. Walking around Rio at night is like a festival even when it’s not carnival. All members of the families are out together, all generations from grandparents to babies. And I’m told this isn’t that busy as usual.
The next day, Maria tells me more about her neighbourhood, Flamengo is one of the districts which fringes on the main city area and begins the stretch of beaches. The beach is not bath-able, due to the quality of the water. But beach sports are encouraged attracting all ages to play volleyball and beach tennis. The day is Sunday and it’s Mothers Day! Feliz dia das Maes. Every Sunday the main road interlinking the districts is closed so people cycle or walk in the middle of the road. Or, just not to have to deal with the constant stream of traffic. It’s positively healthy and a simple idea. The road is barricaded at one end and a diversion directs traffic away from the area. All drivers are aware and because it’s Sunday it’s less busy and it just works. Fitness in Rio is everywhere!
We walk for about 30 minutes and settle down by a vendor selling coconuts and I have my first coconut drink, it’s refreshing and well earnt. Looking out over one of the many bays of Rio we stare directly at the Sugar Loaf mountain which is about a kilometre away. The cable car terminus looks like it’s going to tip over the massive natural structure, but the cable cars happy chunter up and down. Looking over the sea Maria points out Urca, the area lining the bottom of Sugar Loaf. Apparently there’s a sea wall where people like to hang out on an evening, chat and drink beer. It’s safe too.
Overhead planes are preparing for landing in the domestic airport. Maria tells me the pilots have a tricky job maneuvering the craft around Sugar Loaf as the airstrip is shorter.
Earlier that day Maria went downstairs to buy some things for breakfast at the Hortifruti supermarket (below the apartment). She laughs as she describes the shop. Apparently if you’re the first person to enter the shop that morning, instead of them going in first, they open the doors and line up and make you walk through the centre of them whilst they ‘sing’ We welcome you today, thank you for shopping it’s so lovely to see you! Now can you imagine anyone doing that in England? Spent the whole of Monday laughing imaging Tesco express staff singing enthusiastically to greet the first customers on Dewsbury Road.
My check in time is 2pm for Airbnb, so I will be saying farewell to Maria for now. I will be meeting her later on in the week to visit her offices. Meanwhile I get a message from Sonia my Brazilian friend (in Leeds) saying that her brother would like to show me around later on that afternoon. I also get a message from my Airbnb host saying the cleaner didn’t arrive to get the place ready in time so check in has to be 3pm, and her mum is cleaning. On Mothers’ Day!
Maria and I are now at the famous Ipanema Sunday market situated at the end of the subway line; General Osorio. Beautiful artisan crafts and jewellery are on sale along with the usual tourist nick-nacks, within a square. After circling the market four times Maria says she’s going for a sit down in the restaurant she tactically showed me a few laps ago. I meet her there later inside and sample the jambu leaf from the Amazon. It makes your mouth go numb and tingly when you eat it. I get some of that inside a tapioca wrap. This is amazing: the tapioca flakes are sprinkled onto a hot plate and then it congeals together, it’s then folded like a pancake and you can choose savoury or sweet options inside. I order the chicken and cheese wrap, melted into a meal like a gluten free pasty! We also get to have a taste of the Jambu cachaça a national spirit made from sugar cane. I’ve tasted this already in my Caipirinha, but this speciality is savoured as a liqueur and not shaken with anything else. This is also the best place to get acaia berry, which is famously high in vitamins. I had to take a picture!
Between packing and getting ready to leave this lovely apartment I swing in Maria’s hammock under the canopy of the trees, reaching five stories high. Wheeling my suitcase again over the cobbled white tiled stones, I am a tourist again and Maria stands on the corner of the busy street and hails a taxi for me. It’s that easy and I’m leaving Flamengo behind and entering the busy Copacabana district grid system. The taxi goes up a steep incline to an apartment building reaching seven storeys into the sky. The guy on reception gets me to fill in a registration form and then tells me to go upstairs where they have the key. I think that’s what he says anyway. I find my host’s mother with a mop and bucket and her niece in the apartment with big smiles on their faces. They won’t be a moment.
Airbnb is amazing. You get to live with real people from the area, and that local knowledge helps to give a different experience. You usually you live with the family or person, and share bathrooms and cook in the same living area. Since the Olympics people in Brazil have incorporated their living spaces to suit the practice. My apartment is self-contained and I have a view out over Copacabana. How on earth am I supposed to do any writing with this view?
Soon Sonia’s brother Antonio will be picking me up. So I quickly unpack and Facetime the kids before going downstairs to meet him. Antonio is Sonia’s elder brother and he lives and works in the family-owned restaurant opposite the Copacabana Palace Hotel. He is also a music producer! I’m going to be discovered at last ha! He says this place is right by the school that he and Sonia went to as a child. Their parents live two minutes around the corner. Of all the places in the city to find an Airbnb, it’s right where they grew up.
I am soon in the car and we’re zooming about the area. To my surprise I’m being taken over the whole of Rio. We get past the diversion in Flamengo and skirt by the wall in Urca of people drinking beer and socialising on the wall. We see the mountaineers climbing the gigantic sheer rock faces, looking like tiny colourful matchsticks. We go up the cobbled road, twisting and turning until the tram tracks appear. It’s authentic picture perfect area of Santa Teresa. Tourists and locals meander about in and out of restaurants, bars and gift shops. It’s a holidaymaker’s paradise. Later on I get treated to a meal with Antonio’s family at their restaurant. I feel lucky and grateful I’ve had such a great start to my week!