Rio truly is a cidade maravilhosa: a vast sprawling metropolis of every type of building imaginable clinging to dramatic topography. Beaches straight from picture postcards are topped by dizzying rocks and peaks; smart marble fronted apartment blocks overlooked by thrown together favela buildings. Decaying colonial grandeur, riotous colours, formica and grime, Rio’s reputation as a city of contrast manifests itself visually as well as culturally.
Botafogo beach has perhaps the most beautiful view: a vista over the yacht club, historic Urca and the famed Sugarloaf, all topped off with stunning white sand and blue sea. On the first day, I head there, and lie on a practically deserted beach feeling rather smug (and wondering where the rest of Rio’s 6.3 million inhabitants are). It turns out that this stunning beach, this picture postcard view, is the most polluted beach in the city.
For the first month I am overwhelmed: lost, shy and often frustrated. With horror stories ringing in my head, I walk nowhere after dark and rarely use my smartphone in public. Without basic knowledge about which apps to use, no local knowledge and little sense of direction, I explore the city badly, feeling twinges of homesickness for London: a city I could navigate blindfolded. Then there are the cultural differences: Rio is a city of approximations, a journey may take 10 minutes or an hour depending on traffic, your change will always be rounded up or down and a tolerance level of 30 minutes surrounds any arrival or departure.
Perhaps the most striking thing is the language barrier: prior to arriving, I had been learning Portuguese for about a year, (with a long suffering tutor). This, (coupled with my awful Spanish) in theory should have allowed me to communicate at least enough to procure a taxi and coffee. Sadly, nothing can prepare one for the Carioca accent: a fast lilting singsong that bears little resemblance to the clipped Paulista accent I’ve been learning from. Few people speak English and I am dumb, unable to speak nor understand, left cursing my lack of preparation.
Conversations are impossible, people speed up and by the time my brain has caught up with what I think might have been said, it has moved on. I find the only time I can join in is when the conversation is directly about me or I am directly controlling it (a very self serving and surprisingly nerve racking task). For someone as talkative as me, this is both torturous and infuriating. As someone who both ‘loves words, and the possibilities of words’ (as Steinbeck put it) it’s now that I start to really appreciate the power of language. For it’s one thing to be able to talk about what you are doing now, tomorrow or last week and a very different one to be able to talk about what you think, believe and feel. As I struggle with the transactional, it seems like a big ask to ever be able to speak this complex language properly. Yet for reasons of sanity, self expression and pride, it must be done.
It’s worth it though, this great and flawed city: I have never seen, nor will see again, anything to beat a sunrise or set over Ipanema beach, or the view from Cristo Redentor. The charm, passion and sheer eccentricity of the inhabitants goes a long way towards taking the edge off even the long waits, creaking infrastructure and mind boggling bureaucracy.
So there you have it after five months of near silence. Nothing can prepare you for the sheer awesomeness of Rio de Janeiro. The challenges, contrasts and complexities of everyday life are like a language you need to understand before you can even begin to open your mouth. Shrouded in confusion and written in a strange alphabet, these realities take time to truly understand but are all the sweeter for the struggle. I am finally starting to be able to work with, instead of against it.
One person I meet shares a love of Charles Bukowski. We try and talk about why in English and I can see he is struggling to express himself, so we switch to Portuguese and I don’t understand. The group joins in and the conversation slips away from me, borne off in a cloud of ‘gíria’, unmastered tenses and one too many bottles of beer. But it’s no longer an issue, simply an indication of the road that still lies ahead.