Even though Roshan and I went to Brazil first and foremost as journalists, we made sure to be tourists on our off days.
The most incredible thing about Brazil and Rio de Janeiro—especially with the experience we had there being journalists and tourists—is the massive range of emotions that consumed us depending on which mode we were in. As journalists, it was high stress, high emotions, high functioning trying to process the misery and the majesty we were seeing.
But as tourists, when your express purpose is to enjoy your surroundings and not necessarily to make moral sense of it all—Brazil can be one of the most calming, cathartic places you could possibly go.
You’ll see when I go through the main tourist destinations we hit.
On our first day of tourism, Roshan and I wanted to go to Sugarloaf Mountain and Christ the Redeemer. We wanted to make sure that we just went to both of the most iconic natural landmarks in Rio—a land of countless beautiful natural landmarks. We only made it to Sugarloaf that day.
Why? Because 1) we accidentally missed our bus stop. It wasn’t that we didn’t know which stop to get off at—it’s that we weren’t 100% sure it was the right bus stop until several seconds after the bus left the stop. All that meant, though, was a walk through Rio, and what’s so bad about that?
Roshan and I had this idea that we were going to climb up Sugarloaf mountain, but after the long walk because of the missed bus, we decided to just take the lift up. Plus, we had our camera with us because we wanted to get aerial footage of the sprawling wonderscape that is Rio for the documentary, so the lift it was!
One of the things we realized when we bought the tickets was that the tram didn’t just bring you right to the Sugarloaf—it brings you to a halfway mountain that’s not as tall or as loafy as Sugarloaf, and then you have to board another tram to get to the real loaf. It was a sidebar we were willing to conquer because, hey, it was all just really pretty. So, we boarded the first tram.
This video is the only thing I can really use to document the full extent of my excitement:
When we got to the first mountain, got off the tram and looked around, we just looked at each other and laughed. Roshan has done a lot of traveling in her life—more than I have. So I can really only speak for myself when I say the view from the top of the first mountain was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.
First of all, at the top of the mountain, they’ve created a resort type of thing with gift shops, cafés and benches all around the perimeter so the thoughtful (or tired) tourist can rest his/her feet and spend an afternoon staring out into paradise.
While we were in Rio, it tended to be overcast in the mornings, and, again, it was an overcast day when we went to Sugarloaf. The first mountain we trammed to was short (haha!) enough that we could still get a beautiful view of the city, but we were worried that when we got to the towering Sugarloaf peak, our view would be hampered by mother nature’s blinds (clouds). We didn’t spend too much time worrying about that, though. We just enjoyed ourselves before we boarded the second tram.
As we headed to the second tram, I was worried about the clouds. How were we going to get the most epic shots of all of Rio from the highest point possible if it was overcast? I was so concerned about that, I forgot something…
And yes, I ultimately found Roshan, but ascending directly into clouds was startling. Raised Greek Orthodox/Episcopalian, I couldn’t help but worry I was making my ascension into the heavens (which, in retrospect, should have been a relief, considering I’m pretty sure that, when the time comes, I’m headed in the other direction…)
And when I got to the top, this is what I found:
Which made me feel like:
But I did see this, which was cool:
But even so, everything still looked like this:
So, I did this:
Until, this happened:
It was the closest I’ve ever come to believing in God. As I stared off into the nothing, the clouds began to move and I saw him: Christ the Redeemer, peeking out through the heavens. “Christos Anesti,” I thought.
The scene was miraculous. We could see nothing but white, and suddenly, piercing through the cloudy armor was Christ the Redeemer’s magnificent, embracing figure, showing something to us none of us thought we were looking for.
It was almost as though he were proving to us exactly how magical and powerful he was, and that the only thing in Rio more commanding than Mother Nature herself, was Christ.
Never had I been more inclined to believe in God than I was at that moment. Then, suddenly, the wind picked up, and more of Rio revealed itself, and this scene manifested itself:
Yeah, I know. Want that from another angle? Thought you would:
And if you’ll note, always, no matter how I take the picture, the most commanding, central presence in each photo is Christ the Redeemer. And it was in this moment that it hit me: Christ the Redeemer wasn’t just a beautiful statue of Jesus Christ on a mountain, he was, in fact, the eye of God watching over a city much in need of a North Star.
Never before had I given much thought to Christ the Redeemer’s pose, but then, from the peak of Sugarloaf mountain, standing before Jesus Christ himself, I realized that from his home at the peak of Corcovado mountain, Jesus Christ is eternally offering his salvation to the people of Rio de Janeiro, a people who undoubtedly need salvation from somewhere.
In a country—and city—where the government has sacrificed their mandate for their bank accounts and their people for property values; where people are losing homes that have been in their families for 40 years and losing their children’s health to the rubble of their memories, hopes and dreams; Christ stands resolute, offering shelter, offering hope, offering his silhouette standing in defiance of even Mother Nature’s best efforts to hide him. I imagine that often, he is the only hope a family facing eviction in a favela has to turn to that won’t turn his back on them. It had never been more clear to me why he is called “Christ the Redeemer,” of all things.
Roshan and I tried to take what photos we could of the landscape beneath the clouds, but ultimately we knew it didn’t matter. People come to the top of Sugarloaf mountain to witness something powerful, and were it not for the clouds, we’d never have been able to appreciate the full power of Christ the Redeemer. We didn’t need much more.
We did manage to take some photos, like these:
But by the end, the only image we were left with, or even really cared about, was this:
We walked back to the bus, satisfied, believing that if every journalist had seen what we’d just seen, we’d be a far less cynical bunch.
We still had set to make it to the peak of Corcovado to see Christ himself up close but that was for another day. Read on…
Real Gabinete Português de Leitura
I’d read so many tourism handbooks about Rio before I went, and the pictures that always got me most excited—even more than the natural beauties Rio has to offer, were the pictures of the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura, a cultural library and landmark in Rio located right in the City Center. This is what it looks like from the inside—and note that it still looks incredible, even from the lens of a poor photographer (mine):
Shelves and shelves filled to capacity from every direction you looked. It was my imperative to make it to this library, though everyone else in the group—Roshan, Thiago and Emily, and friend we’d made at the hostel—hadn’t read up on it like I had and therefore were only going to humor me because they didn’t know what they were in for.
Needless to say, when we got there, everyone was clapping me on the back, which made the visit that much more successful and enjoyable for me.
The one thing that surprised me, though:
At first, this confused me:
But then I realized that that’s probably the only way they’re able to preserve it’s beauty and magic and stupefying precision. Humans are flawed beings, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve dog-eared books, or brought books back after late notices from the public libraries. Why would a library as magnificent and flawless as this one risk it’s heavenly beauty by allowing dumbass humans to read its books? If this library was a chick at a library bar, she’d be the biggest tease in the room, but no one would fault her for it.
I felt so small in this library, and since I love reading, being in there was like being a fat kid chained to the floor in the middle of a candy shop—just out of reach of the most delicious chocolates in the world.
As you can see, I had a hard time dealing with the fact that I wasn’t allowed to touch the books:
And to think I was so excited to get there in the first place:
Look at how excited I was before I read that sign:
This is me and Roshan after we read the sign (Roshan doesn’t seem to share my feelings of discontent):
Ultimately, though, simply knowing that there is a library as fairytale perfect as this one that exists in a world as disillusioned as this one was enough for us to leave on a happy, fulfilling note:
Because the Real Gabinete Português de Leitura was in the City Center, and we happened to be with Thiago, he showed us all the other excellent sites in the Center.
El Teatro Municipal was just blocks away from the library, and boy, was it a site to behold:
Being the huge theatre nerd I am, this was so wonderful for me to see. But I’m also a huge history nerd, and Thiago helped me recognize the importance of some buildings I would have otherwise passed thinking nothing more than, “wow, that’s a beautiful building.” One building in particular was Candelária Church.
It is a beautiful church that is still in use—but with dark moments littering its history. Right out on the sidewalk in front of the church are eight human figures painted in red.
Each of these figures represents a person that was murdered in the Candelária massacre in 1993, when police shot and killed eight street children who were sleeping in front of the Candelária. The kids essentially lived outside of the church (many people in Rio have no homes at all, hence the favelas), and the morning of the massacre, they’d thrown stones at police cars, annoying the police enough to have them warn, “don’t worry, we’ll get you soon!” The outside of the church served as a home for many homeless children usually involved in prostitution and the rampant drug trade that plagues Rio’s streets, and that night at around midnight, the police opened fire on them while they slept. Of the crowd of children that were shot at, 8 were killed, ranging in age from 11 to 20 years old. There is also a cross that serves as a reminder next to the red bodies that were painted in their memory. This is the excellent New York Times article written about the massacre—please read it. It does more justice to the story than I have.
There is also a fountain and statue across the street of a naked woman that, in modern times, has come to stand as a symbol against homophobia.
Just like I’d really wanted to see the library earlier that evening, on Roshan’s Rio bucket list was seeing the statue of Ghandi in the city. There are monuments to Ghandi all over the world, and Roshan had loved the one she’d seen when she was in Johannesburg, South Africa. She’d read that there was one in Rio, so we all went to see it. It was quite a walk as it was on the other side of the City Center, but we found it, and boy, was it thought-provoking.
This statue emphasized the weight on Ghandi’s shoulders as he fought tirelessly for peace. This statue really got the message across how hard and tiring it must have been to fight as hard as Ghandi did for a goal that was so close to impossible. If anyone made that goal seem real, it was Ghandi.
Other architectural triumphs in the City Center include:
How did we feel about The City Center?
What were our final thoughts?
But our time in the City Center wasn’t even over. We still had to go to the
The most delicious and visually stunning confectionary Brazil has to offer.
We’d just had a gigantic dinner and miraculously made it to Colombo without wheelbarrows, but we knew we had to try this place out. In all the tourism books, the number one food place to visit is always Colombo, and they always make sure you know to go there for dessert. And we did.
We made all our food decisions based on Thiago’s suggestions (and the fact that Roshan gave up chocolate for Lent) and we ended up with a delicious assortment of goodies.
I now realize I never got a shot of the food before we began eating it because I was so excited when the desserts were dropped off that all any of us thought was, “EAT.” And we did eat it, and considering how full we were before, we became loopy afterwards with gluttony.
And, like any proper drunk person, I took yet another embarrassing video, where Thiago gets a surprise delivery:
If Thiago looks disappointed—or at least not as excited as I was to see the delivery—it’s because he is a regular there and knew, right when they set the dessert in front of him, that they had brought him the wrong one.
The Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens are the closest thing to the Amazon you can get in Brazil without actually being in their Amazon.
It is, indeed, the place that showed me that I am not cut out to live the life of Tarzan. As humid as the city was, when you enter the Botanical Gardens, the humidity triples, as does the amount of mosquitoes. I have been cursed with delicious blood (I dunno the blood type though—I probably should…) and I don’t think I can count how many times I got bitten.
If you’ll notice, I’m carrying a water bottle around with me, which is something I learned to always do after the first day since water in Brazil is never free. There are no drinking fountains or complementary glasses of water with dinner. Hence, water bottle.
But the most awesome thing about the Botanical Gardens was seeing flora, fauna and animalia I’d never seen before.
Roshan and I went with Emily, who really wanted to see a tropical bird. As a child, I really wanted to be an archaeologist and—just ask my parents—I pretty much learned everything one could about every dinosaur ever. Emily had the same fascination, but with birds of paradise.
So, for birds of paradise we hunted. We’d heard there were toucans, so we searched, but we couldn’t find toucans—or any birds at all for that matter. We heard them, but we never really saw them.
But finally, we found something else that screeched like a bird, but looked like a monkey. It turned out to be a monkey that chirped like a bird when it spoke. I got super close to it and we became best friends.
It was surprisingly tiring walking through the gardens—mainly because of the climate, but also because it took a lot of energy to try to process all the beauty. It would have been much easier to just check out and marvel at the foliage, slack-jawed and cross-eyed, spittle spilling over the brim of my lips, but I tried to process it all. Which was a startling mental drain.
There was so much to look at. No matter where you turned your head you could stare for hours and still not see everything. The thing about tropical forests is that there is so much life, and 99% of it, even the experts don’t even have names for yet. So you can imagine that I—having lived the past 4 years in America’s Midwest—was very overwhelmed by the explosions of life surrounding me. And the pretty man-made things as well.
We’d exhausted ourselves at the Botanical Gardens. Little did we know the next day would be 10 times as tiring.
Christ the Redeemer
Emily is an extremely fit woman, and she’d told us stories of how, since she’d been in Rio, she’d already climbed several mountains like they were escalators. She had already climbed Corcovado—the mountain that claims Christ the Redeemer as its own—and we told her about our plans to make it to the top as well. We’d always planned to just take a bus up, but she suggested that we climb, and because Roshan and I were in a mood to just say yes, we said “Yes,” and thus, our plan to climb Corcovado to see Christ the Redeemer was born.
I had every intention of climbing Corcovado. And as we walked up the mountain, we passed a lot of people—they were all locals, and every one of them warned against trying to climb the mountain. One woman said, in perfect English, “There’s no hospital up there.” We knew that. But we didn’t listen.
On the way up, we ran into someone we knew from Northwestern. We freaked out. What are the odds? Very slim.
It didn’t take long for me to decide that climbing Corcovado wasn’t actually the best idea for me. It was a long way up and it was all uphill. Ray and I were hurtin’ about halfway up, but Roshan and Emily were going strong. What made the climb worse was seeing the busses of people being driven up passing us the whole time. How I longed to cling to the bumper and be dragged the rest of the way.
One van, on its way down, saw potential customers, and stopped right next to me and said, “I take you up, 10 reais.”
I turned my head and said to Ray, “Ray, 10 reais.” Ray’s eyes were deadlocked on mine. Roshan said, “Ray, no,” and Ray turned to her and said:
“I’ll see you guys at the top.”
Ray and I hopped into the van and were at the top of the mountain in minutes. In the van, Ray told me that when I told him the price, he’d heard 100 reais, and still he was reaching for his wallet. Ray and I made the right choice for ourselves, and 90 minutes later, Roshan and Emily reached the top, happy as could be. They’d made the right choice for themselves too.
Unfortunately, it was very overcast that day, but, fortunately, we were inches from His son.
I sat for a while directly in front of Christ for a while and just looked at him. It was so easy to be calm in this statue’s presence. I’d already had the experience of seeing Christ from the peak of Sugarloaf mountain, and I’d already been deeply moved by him, but sitting that close to him, even among the melee of tourists snapping shots and yelling to each other, it was so easy to tune everything out and just look at him.
When we all felt we’d reached salvation, we headed back down, a bit disappointed we couldn’t see the view from the top of the mountain. On our way out, though, we saw a diagram of what everything looks like from the top of the mountain. It was meant to let the people at the top of the mountain know what they were looking at, but in our case it served as the single and only view of Rio we’d get from the mountaintop. So I guess it’s almost the same, right?