Saturday #23: I Heart Rio

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Normally my first challenge of the day is to get out of bed, have a shower, get dressed and exit a 6-bed dorm without waking anyone. I’ve experienced mixed results with this personal daily challenge. On Saturday I awoke to brilliant sunshine streaming through a crack in the curtains and falling in a 6” wide swath across my face. The rest of the large room was dark and quiet. I had intended to gracefully slide off the top bunk but instead landed on an upturned bottle cap and fell sideways into a bank of metal lockers. I’m not sure which was louder: the sound of 200+ pounds of flesh hitting sheet metal or my four-letter expletive. Not that it mattered. I was the only person in the room who didn’t stagger back from a local street party at 5:07 a.m. The others were dead to the world.

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After breakfast I set out for town. From the front terrace at the hostel you descend 106 steps to the street-level front gate, then down the winding Rua Joaquim Murtinho to the edge of the Lapa neighborhood that lays 500 meters below. You’d think that walking down the hill would be easier than climbing back up again, but with loose sand spread over newly laid cobblestones and a slope of about 15 degrees, it was even trickier going down.

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I made it to the bottom of the hill to find dozens of people passed out on the sidewalk in various states of undress. These weren’t homeless people; they were simply living evidence of last night’s street party. I can see how it could happen if you had one too many caipirinhas and lived in a favela at the top of the hill. Did I mention that taxis refuse to travel on the street where my hostel was located? You won’t read that on the hostel’s web site!

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As I strolled under the centuries old Carioca Aqueduct at the base of the hill I heard a man’s voice calling my name. It was Marino. (Yes, I now know people in Rio!) We had met twice in the last few days – the first time being when he spotted me taking a photo of some street art. It turns out that Mario is one of the most prolific street artists in the city and he has a workshop near the aqueduct where he prints a line of clothing that he sells in the market. He’s a bit of a big deal here.

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PHOTO: Marino, left, wearing one of his t-shirt designs when we first met on Thursday, with hostel buddies Nick and Frederik.

At Marino’s suggestion I set out in search of the Saturday morning antique market. The second challenge of the day was to avoid buying anything larger than an embroidered patch that I will eventually sew on a backpack. I had to say “no” to this c. 1975 portable television / radio that was a steal at $40. I can imagine Steve Jobs having one and saying, “I can do better.” The seller claimed that it worked like new, but then he also said “si” when I asked if it had a Retina display and could access Pandora.

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Just north of the antique market I came across Rio’s permanent flea market. And boy did this bring back a flood of memories from Saturday mornings past. The flea market business hasn’t changed much since the 1970s when I regularly hit the “Sales Barn” or flea market in Stouffville, Ontario. Back then there was nothing I could conceive of ever needing that wasn’t sold at the Sales Barn. Flash forward to Rio de Janeiro, 2014, and there are literally millions of things on sale here that beg the question, “Who buys this crap?”

One stall sold nothing but empty plastic containers for pills and makeup. I suppose this would be great if you really needed one but how a family makes a living selling nothing but plastic pillboxes is beyond me.

There are dozens of kiosks selling backpacks and luggage and hundreds of vendors selling every possible electronic gadget, connector, adapter and plug. Some of the stock is current but much of it was probably shipped to South America when it didn’t sell elsewhere. The oddest electronic gadget I saw was a USB stick built into the base of a dildo. I have no idea what that’s about but there were six different models. The shopkeeper shot me a dirty look when I fiddled with my camera so no photo was taken.

Adidas shorts are a big seller in Rio. I found at least a dozen vendors that offered nothing but Adidas shorts. They were likely knock-offs, albeit of much better quality than the most pathetic Santa suits imaginable. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t done much traveling in December, but it still feels strange to hear Christmas music when it’s 30C in the shade.

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The best deals were undoubtedly the unlabeled tins that had been marked “fish” with felt marker. Mind you, with no label it was hard to tell if you were buying tuna, salmon, mackerel or Friskies. These tins didn’t appear to be WWII rations, but with no ‘best before’ date, how would you know? I’m sure it was destined for one of the city’s luncheon buffets where it will be mixed with noodles and sold at $2.99 for 100 grams.

I tried on a snazzy all-in-one set of headphones, sunglasses and leopard-print cowboy hat. The headphones and sunglasses were securely fastened to the hat so you would never again misplace these items. Of course if you lose the hat, you’d lose all three items. I took a rain check.

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Despite the seedy aspect of some kiosks, and thousands of people crammed into very narrow streets, the market appeared to be reasonably safe (fashion crimes notwithstanding). Armed Municipal Guards were stationed at major street corners. I doubt they’d chase a pickpocket for you but they might deter major armed robberies. At least the merchants appeared to be well protected.

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And some merchants were walking around with huge bundles of cash. I found one guy selling gold chains and what appeared to be a brand new iPhone 5 for R$800 or about $353 CDN. The same phone would be three or four times that price at an authorized Apple dealer in Brazil. I’m in the market for an iPhone but I wouldn’t touch one of these at any price. If they’re not stolen and cannot be activated then they’re almost certainly knock-offs. Try finding this guy in 15 minutes, let alone next month when the phone falls apart.

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This Veg-O-Matic demonstrator was doing a booming business with his five-for-one holiday promotion. Who could resist a bottle opener, corkscrew, vegetable peeler, apple corer, and the old standby Veg-O-Matic chopper for one low, low price of R$19?

I met Phil Kives, racehorse owner and founder of K-Tel, when I worked at the track in Winnipeg. Phil was an brilliant marketer but even K-Tel eventually ran out of North American customers for the Veg-O-Matic. I’m not sure if I’m heartened to know that people is South America are still making a living off this piece of crap, or saddened that Brazilian mother’s are still being presented with one of these on Christmas morning.

After a full day of jostling crowds in the scorching sun, and keeping both hands in my pockets at all times, I trudged back up the hill to Rio Forest Hostel. The place was nearly deserted. Apparently the Advil truck had arrived. I grabbed a pen and notebook and headed even further up the hill in search of a quiet spot to eat, drink and scribble some notes.

The first stop was Edwin’s. I assume that it was called Edwin’s as the bartender/owner introduced himself as Edwin. The bar did not have a sign. Hell, it didn’t have a table, chair, stool or an actual bar either. Edwin mixed caipirianas on a rickety card table tucked away in the corner and patrons balanced their drinks on the wall that surrounded the roof of Edwin’s hillside home. His version of the caipirinha is the best I’ve had – and I’m becoming somewhat of an expert on this drink. (Research, people. Research.)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caipirinha

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Edwin didn’t serve food at his bar, and to be honest, I was feeling a bit guilty staring down at people who were lounging on the sidewalk in front of their home, so I decided to climb even higher in search of dinner and a less intrusive view.

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I soon came upon a boisterous crowd that spilled out onto the narrow street. Everyone had a drink in hand and many were dancing to reggae tunes that blasted from the bar’s high-end sound system. I took a seat at a small table just inside the front window and ordered a Brahma. I got a Bohemia. I’m not sure what that says about the waiter’s assessment of me but it was cold and wet and just what I needed after an exhausting climb. It was well past 10 p.m. and still about 25C. After three bottles of Bohemia I had cobbled together the rough draft of an article that I posted on Monday: Pass the mint jelly, please.

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The bill for three 600ml bottles of beer, a starter plate of mini empanadas, a generous cut of filet mignon, rice, and salad was $R48. That’s about $21 CDN. And people say Rio is an expensive city! I’m sure it is for people who don’t stray more than a block from the beach in Ipanema or Copacabana, but hike halfway up a mountain, just short of the favelas, and you’ll eat well for a quarter of the price.

After dinner and a nightcap at Edwin’s, I strolled back down Rua Joaquim Murtinho to my hostel. The street was well lit. Dozens of dilapidated mansions are in various stages of renovation. The artists and squatters who have been occupying them for years are now being driven out. Unused for decades, the trolley tracks are in the process of being re-built. Throngs of tourists will soon be able to drink at Edwin’s and enjoy filet mignon at the reggae bar without flexing a quad or calf muscle. The infrastructure improvements, the painting over of street art and the general “gussying up” are a sure sign that the city is being cleansed in advance of the 2016 Olympics.

As I approached the hostel, dogs barking from behind locked iron gates and the lights of Lapa and Centro twinkling below, I couldn’t help but think that Rio has its charms. It also has an edgier side. Drink enough caipirinhas and the two Rios morph into one. I only hope the Olympics don’t do that to Rio permanently.

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