Dancing with Rio de Janeiro: A Local Returns to the City of her Roots

Plus: An insider's guide to the Brazilian city.  
Ipanema Rio Brazil
Sunset at Ipanema often draws applause from appreciative beachgoers. Photo: Jefferson Bernardes/Shutterstock

Framed by the oval of the airplane window, Rio de Janeiro seemed ethereal, a bright patch hovering between the vast blues of ocean and sky, weightless under the sun. I smiled. A trick of light and perspective reduced this very real city to what it was to me: a daydream, a figment, something so insubstantial, it looked as if it would float away if not for the great granite peaks pinning it down.

I was born in Brazil, but left the country as a child. For decades, I had clung to this gossamer image of water, warmth, colour, and light, and called it home. Now it was 2010, and I was moving back, a news correspondent tasked with covering Rio as it prepared for the World Cup and the Olympics. Although, or maybe because, I’d lived or worked in more than a dozen cities in nearly as many countries, I also brought with me a powerful yearning to connect with the only place that had remained a constant in my life.

The city I found was a lot more complicated than the picture I’d carried in my mind. A metropolis with more than six million people and its share of problems, Rio comes crashing in through your senses all at once: its beauty, its absurdities, its extremes. The international airport is on an island, the largest one breaking up the mirror of Guanabara Bay. Step through the sliding glass doors and out of the air-conditioning and you are assaulted by the smell of sewage that taints the bay. Humidity closes in; even the walls seem to sweat. Speeding away in your taxi, you see on the left coloured bits of plastic that fringe Guanabara’s shore. To the right is a vast favela, its unfinished redbrick homes shielded behind acrylic panes.

Carnaval Rio Brazil

Residents of the Madureira neighborhood, home to two of Rio’s samba schools, rehearse their samba dance in preparation for Carnaval. Photo: Lianne Milton/Panos

You keep going. Overpasses and tunnels turn the traffic into knots. It’s impossible to lay down a straight road in an urban landscape broken by lagoons, rivers, and granite facades. The same elements that make the city irresistible make it an urban-planning nightmare. You roll up your window, keeping out the diesel stench.

Then the view opens wide. Your eyes race across the miles of white sand that make up Copacabana Beach. Ipanema and Leblon, two halves of the same beach, are anchored on one end by the Dois Irmãos peaks and on the other by Arpoador, a tumble of massive boulders.

Cariocas, as Rio natives are known, are fiercely proud of their cidade maravilhosa, their marvellous city. Every summer at sunset, beachgoers in Ipanema will clap as the sun dips down behind the twin peaks of the Dois Irmãos, grateful for another day in this gorgeous, maddening place. Once I settle in, I join the crowd, revelling in the communal experience. Then I go buy a cool, green coconut to wash down the tang of ocean spray, only to have the vendor catch onto my too formal Portuguese, look up at my pallid face, and ask: “So, where are you really from?”

During my first year back in Rio, when I felt drained by the news or frustrated by the elusiveness of the connection I craved, I ended many of my days with dozens of Cariocas, sitting on Arpoador’s sun-warmed stones, watching the surfers paddle below, and drinking cold beers fished from deep within the Styrofoam ice chests of passing vendors. Powerful spotlights illuminate that corner of the ocean after dark, and on sweltering evenings I often jumped in and swam past the surfers to that calm spot beyond the break. As Tom Jobim, composer of Brazilian bosso nova music, famously said, “Brazil is not for beginners.” That is true. But it also is true that no existential anguish survives a half hour spent floating on your back in the Atlantic, watching the darkening summer sky.

Stairs Rio de Janeiro Brazil

The Escadaria Selarón, or Selarón Staircase, is a colourful city landmark crafted with over 2,000 tiles from 60 nations as a tribute to the Brazilian people by Rio-based Chilean artist, Jorge Selarón. Photo: Lazyllama/Alamy Stock Photo

Eventually, I stopped worrying so much about belonging and just let the boundaries blur in their own time. No one else was in a hurry: Women walked slowly, hips swaying in a movement that included as much sideways swing as forward momentum. Getting a coffee could be a 15-minute ritual, if you included the obligatory chat with the barista. On park benches, bus stops, in the middle of a crowded sidewalk, couples kissed at leisure, their bodies zippered together by interlocking limbs, oblivious to crowds parting around them. I took note, eased my steps, sunk in.

As months turned to years, Rio offered up its simple pleasures: the deep-fried crunch of bolinhos de bacalhau (codfish croquettes) shared with friends outside Bar Urca; the chants of vendors at the Glória fruit and vegetable market on Sundays; a long, lazy picnic in the dappled shade of centenary trees at the Jardim Botânico, waiting for the occasional toucan or the tiny marmosets that hang in the branches above, ready to swoop down for an unguarded piece of fruit.

Before I knew it, I had a favourite juice stand—you have to find your own—and favourite juices: pineapple and mint, or orange juice and collard greens. For the best acai in town, served thick, creamy, and without sugar, I bellied up to Tacacá do Norte, in Flamengo. On rainy afternoons, I took in the free art exhibits at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil, or whatever was on display at Gávea’s carefully curated Instituto Moreira Salles: posters from revolutionary Russia, ancient maps, turn-of-the-century photography. When I was feeling especially decadent, my boyfriend and I headed to the Bar dos Descasados, set in the garden of a boutique hotel in the bohemian Santa Teresa quarter. We lounged on daybeds, looking out over the city and sipping fusion caipirinhas made with Brazil’s favourite firewater, cachaça, macerated with lychee and basil or passion fruit and pepper.

Rio sets its own pace, and has its own priorities. You learn to love it when you give in to the city, and stop expecting the city to adjust to you.

Appeared in the August 2016 issue as “Dancing with Rio”.

Christ the Redeemer. Illustration: Tamer Koseli

Where The Locals Go

You can see my city best from the many granite peaks that break up its urban landscape. Some of the most accessible ones are Sugarloaf, with its cable cars, and Corcovado, topped by the renowned art deco statue of “Christ the Redeemer.” But don’t miss a hike up to the less explored viewpoints such as Pedra da Gávea and Dois Irmãos.

Locals know to skip the crush of Copacabana or Ipanema Beach on a hot summer Sunday and instead check out cooler and less crowded parks, such as Jardim Botânico or Parque Lage.

The Feira Hippie de Ipanema, a fair that takes place every Sunday on General Osório Square, is the place to buy only-in-Brazil musical instruments, such as the cuíca and agogô, as well as jewellery, clothing, and art.

The foods that best represent my city are bolinhos de bacalhau (codfish croquettes) and crispy, deep-friend pastéis stuffed with meat, cheese, or shrimp. Sample them at the Mercado São José.

  • Juliana Barbassa is a journalist and author of the book, "Dancing With the Devil in the City of God" (Touchstone, 2015).

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