How could one go to Rio de Janeiro and not head to its beach? The beaches here are legendary!

I’m not sure about this but I think this is where “dental floss” G-strings and crochet man-thongs made their debut. I have been to quite a number of beaches in the world. But man, oh man, never once did I encounter so many guys wearing G-strings! Though most of the time, it is not a fantastic sight; kudos to them for the confidence they have to even put them on.

Copacabana lives up to its reputation. It is so lively: cariocas (Rio’s inhabitants) and tourists lining up for caipirinhas (pronounced kai-per-rin-nya) – a local cocktail made of cachaca (sugar cane liquor), sugar and lime – at beach kiosks; favela (slum) kids showing off their skills at football, volleyball and futevolei (footvolley, or volleyball played without hands – similar to our sepak takraw but using a soccer ball); and some great bodies tanning in skimpy swimwear.

To me, the most interesting sight was the beach vendors selling their stuff among the beached and tanned bodies. Sunglasses, hats, T-shirts, towels, swimwear, sun tan lotions, chairs, umbrellas, toys, drinks, ice creams, snacks, shrimps – you name it, they’ve got it. Some advice: don’t bargain, just pay – these people work hard under the sun.

It might be night time in Copacabana but that doesn’t stop some people from having fun.

It might be night time in Copacabana but that doesn’t stop some people from having fun.

Copacabana is also surprisingly clean. The sand is wonderful but the waves can be quite rough. On Sundays, the main street on the beachside is closed to traffic and people can walk and bike on the street. And when night falls, we (my daughter and I) loved walking along the sidewalk, watching the sun go down and kids playing football, rehydrating with some agua de coco (coconut water) and snacking on fried shrimp while enjoying the night air. In short, I simply loved this beach, maybe more than Ipanema a bit further south. Maybe because it’s so alive, day and night.

The beaches in Rio are all about simple pleasures, and fun under the sun and the stars. But there is another side to Rio.

I first came to know about the favela when I watched Fast Five, the fifth instalment of the Fast And Furious franchise. Favelas are slums or shanty towns. They are scattered around Rio and other parts of Brazil. The largest favela in Rio is Rocinha (pronounced rosinya), where homes are packed together along an extensive maze of streets and alleys. Clearly, Rocinha is not a traditional tourist attraction, but, well, human beings are curious by nature. So there we were, trying to find our way inside and see a different way of life in this part of the world.

The main street in the favela with wires criss-crossing all over the place.

The main street in the favela with wires criss-crossing all over the place.

‘I Love Rocinha’ street art.

I had never seen anything like it before. This is a world where sewage flows in the open and rats run about freely. With so many people, packed almost like sardines, as well as countless motorcycle taxis and bundles of electrical wires, this favela is quite a sight. So many narrow streets and back alleys, steep stairs, and extremely tight turns. It’s something that is hard to comprehend until you see it for yourself. It is so colourful and full of life yet so humbling.

It isn’t the most extreme favela, and there are government links within, but it is still a great reality check. You can see poverty, but the beauty of the favela is that somehow the people seem happy and satisfied with what they have. This is a huge lesson for those of us who are seemingly better off.

We had expected to face rejection during the visit, even hostility, but no, it was the opposite. Never once did we feel threatened or unsafe; instead we were welcomed. It was truly heartwarming.

As the cariocas say, you have not seen the whole of Rio until you have been to a favela. And it is true. The living conditions might not be up to mark but it is a community and a way of life for many people who live in Rio. And when you look back at the hill, when you reach the bottom, you will see that it has a certain beauty.

The views expressed are entirely the reader’s own. 

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