Rio revs up with revamps

Iguazu Falls (above) is made up of 275 waterfalls in Brazil and Argentina and the Devil's Throat is the mostangelic site.

BRAZIL - This is Brazil's moment. I see a festive country all dressed up, waiting to play flamboyant hostess to the world at a pair of mega events.

Next June, the World Cup finals will play in 12 cities across football-mad Brazil, where football is lovingly christened The Beautiful Game.

Then Rio de Janeiro will welcome the 2016 Olympics, the first Games to be staged in South America, belatedly.

Rio, as the main show, is revamping itself. It is safer and ritzier now, good news for any traveller stepping into a country of contradictions - First World economic star, much Third World rawness around the edges.

Police are now significantly present in gang- scourged favelas or hillside slums in Rio. New attractions are popping up on its waterfront - a new Museum of Tomorrow will portray a green future.

A city of blues and greens, Rio's vistas of curvaceous beaches and mountains are popular, and dreamier than I imagine.

Embedded in the metropolis are less-explored enclaves that tell a more textured story beyond Rio's carnivalesque reputation.

So earlier this month, I take in some classic sights first, and try to wander off the map here and there.

On the peak of Corcovado, the statue of Christ the Redeemer, arms outstretched over Rio below, forms an Art Deco crucifix that is visible from afar and known globally. At night, the 38m statue is illuminated.

I take a 20-minute tram ride over forested slopes to get up close to the icon (admission: 48 reals or S$26). It is a blazing day, but fog shrouds the statue, creating a moment of mystery and intimacy in a big city.

On the way down, samba musicians from a favela step into the tram and play joyously. I am content to video their quick footwork on my iPhone but the lead singer ushers me to try the samba, which ends with a twirl, a kiss on the hand and a few reals in the hat.

I love the towering perspective of high places and next seek Sugarloaf Mountain (admission: 63 reals), which I ascend by cable car on a sunnier day. This time, resplendent views of Rio lie at my feet.

In a single panorama, I see the Atlantic Ocean and pinnacles, skyscrapers and slums. I see Guanabara Bay, which Portuguese explorers somehow mistook for a "rio" or river when they arrived on Jan 1, 1502. So the city is stuck with the mellifluous misnomer Rio de Janeiro - or River of January.

Sugarloaf is hot and crowded, but I can retreat to whispery bamboo-clad corridors, where I drift into a "saudade" state of mind. The Portuguese word, nearly impossible to translate, evokes an emotion of loss or remembrance, with a sense of wistful pleasure. It is how I feel about Brazil (or a wonderful person I'll never meet again), which at that moment is captivating me even as I know my eight-day journey here is transient.

My trip also includes business powerhouse Sao Paulo and the Iguazu Falls.

An adorable palm-sized sagui monkey, cheeky like Brazil itself, breaks my reverie and I am ready to explore Rio again.

It has 85km of curving coastline, and I walk long stretches of Copacabana Beach, first alone, then at night with two new friends.

I admire beautiful Brazilian faces framed by luxuriant curls. On the sand, young footballers kick around till 10.30pm. At kiosks, I relax with coconut juice and a caipirinha, a sugary rum cocktail with lime wedges.

On Rio's beaches, there is a great mixing of loners and lovers, favela dwellers and the middle class, which is burgeoning in this nation that forms the B in BRICS - Brazil, Russia, India, China and more recently South Africa, a new constellation of vigorous economies.

Brazil is the world's seventh biggest economy and seeks a "555" status - to be known as the country with the world's fifth biggest land area, population and economy.

Moving further inland, I join a four-hour tour of the Tijuca National Park, an urban rainforest that amazingly resides in the heart of Rio.

Tour operators run variants of this open-jeep excursion, which in my case starts with a 30-minute stroll in an exotic garden, Jardim Botanico do Rio de Janeiro. I like the national Pau-Brasil tree - a valuable, versatile reddish wood that is fashioned into delicate violin bows or used in naval construction.

Mainly, we drive on long, winding, shaded roads and stop for splendid views of waterfalls and the city.

For a couple of days, I have a private tour guide who is determined to whisk me off the tourist map, beginning with Tijuca. Mr Franco Montefinese, 54, from the Viveterra agency, wants to show me a private museum in the same Tijuca wilderness.

The lush grounds of Museu do Acude (free admission; Estrada do ccude, 764 Alto da Boa Vista) are dotted with whimsical installations in blasts of colour.

I am walking in an enchanted forest, an Alice in Wonderland. I peer at trees merrily encrusted with painted crockery.

I step onto a bridge built close to the tree canopy. And I run into actor Harvey Keitel, barely recognisable in shabby singlet. The Museu, apparently, is a location for a Spike Lee movie.

Mr Montefinese enthusiastically shows me more and more, frequently stopping his car. I see traditional and modern churches, paragliders, eclectic Santa Teresa which is a magnet for artsy Brazilians, city views from the more tranquil Dona Marta and Vista Chinesa lookout points, a Japanese stone lantern, a nursery, exceedingly more.

He also introduces me to a book-loving associate, Mr Edoardo Mannu, 43, an Italian film location manager from Sardinia who moved to Rio two years ago and wed a Brazilian.

Mr Mannu takes a long evening walk around old Rio with me, guided by the GPS in his smartphone.

A trio of hyper-local places linger in my mind. The Hanging Garden of Valonga is a hidden sliver of a park built above street level in 1906.

Its greenery and stones softly eulogise the African slave heritage in Brazil, the last land in the Americas to abolish slavery in 1888. The garden, part of Rio's port revitalisation, is suffused with the last light of the day as I rest on a park bench, pleased that Rio is beautifying itself for the world.

But I also think about the Brazilian protests against the overspending, and purported corruption, in raising the mighty infrastructure for the Games.

I also like the Pedra do Sal (Rock of Salt), a tiny square where slaves unloaded salt. It is the birthplace of samba and every Monday evening, samba lovers gather here.

The evening I am there, Dec 2, is National Samba Day. A little girl dances her heart out to live music, her feet a non-stop whirr. In the sultry air, dignified grandmothers in white lace and young body-conscious Brazilians mingle, quaffing beer. It is pulsating, spontaneous, and I try to picture Rio's showy Carnival originating in this no-frills enclave.

I am also struck by the favela of Pavao, linked by a gleaming new 20-storey elevator to sleek Ipanema below. Rio has seven million people, and one in five residents, probably more, live in these hillside slums with fantastical views.

Football superstars and drug lords alike have sprung from these communities. Indeed I see football pitches, but no nefarious deeds as I trek the narrow streets.

I enjoy the sight of children walking home after school with little Christmas trees, constructed from paper in their personal styles.

Residents walk around with headphones. There are tourist hostels, cafes, credit card machines and a sense of normal life.

Mr Mannu, who has lived in a favela, says: "Everyone works." Some may be waiters in my hotel, he surmises. "A favela is not a slum," he adds, airing a somewhat contrarian view. "It's not an open sewer. It is like an Italian hill village. It's an alternative way to live. People don't care about aesthetics. They live on top of the rich people."

Certainly, favelas have names brimming with beauty and hope. Pavao means "peacock". Famously, there is the City of God (Cidade de Deus), immortalised in a hit movie of the same name a decade ago, and visited by US President Barack Obama.

Often abutting oases of wealth, favelas reveal Rio as a city of extremes. This is heart-stoppingly true when I walk to the far edge of the favela, behind a school, and relish a kingly view of Rio. A serene, curved lagoon with an ostentatious floating Christmas tree lies far below, encircled by mountains and prime properties.

There is a keen sense of Brazil as a blessed country, blighted in places, but perpetually seeking its place in the sun, and never more than now.

siewhua@sph.com.sg


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