A Little Taste of the Sweet Life in Rio
Um Gostinho da Vida Doce
“A Little Taste of the Sweet Life”
by Tom “Sugar” Kane, HomeAway staffer
My fingertips are calloused from rock climbing in Rio de Janeiro two weeks ago. The dry, rough skin has almost entirely peeled off to reveal the soft, pink flesh underneath. Likewise, my mind is still feeling the effects of my journey. I’m shedding old beliefs to make room for new connections and a broader perspective.
When I travel, I keep an open mind and I am on the lookout for new discoveries. Brazil had a lot to teach me and I was ready to learn. I consider myself very fortunate for a recent business trip to Brazil. I fell in love with a country I hadn’t planned to visit…yet.
Once the trip was on my calendar I started getting excited. I had never visited South America, much less the Southern hemisphere. I had absolutely no knowledge of Portuguese. And this looked like it could be my first time climbing outside the United States.
"One’s destination is never a place,
but rather a new way of looking at things."
– Henry Miller
To prepare for the visit, I researched online. I learned a little Brazilian Portuguese and I reached out to coworkers and Brazilians I know for advice. On the plane, I had the great fortune to sit next to a Brazilian-born woman named Patricia for the ten-hour flight. She enthusiastically gave me tips for hours. Yet aside from the language and the list of sights, I didn’t really have many preconceived notions of Brazil. Rio de Janeiro still had a lot in store.
The first thing that stood out was the hustle and bustle. Rio is big! I got a quick tour of the city on my cab ride from the airport to my hotel. My taxi driver and I chatted in a combination of English, Spanish, Portuguese, and gesturing. He pointed out Maracanã Stadium from the highway. I don’t follow “futebol”, but I know the stadium will be featured when Brazil hosts the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics and Paralympics.
As we came around a bend I saw Christ the Redeemer high on an outcropping of rock. The 125-foot (38 m) statue can be seen from much of Rio and is a constant presence. This stands to reason since it is the fifth largest statue in the world and overlooks the city from atop 2,300 foot-tall (710 m) Corcovado Mountain.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Rio feels like a big city. There are 6 million residents in the city proper and 11 million in the metro area. The sheer size of the country was also astonishing. I learned Brazil has a larger area than the contiguous United States and is home to 200 million people (about two-thirds as many the U.S.).
Despite being crammed full of people and buildings, Rio’s natural beauty shines through.
Another thing I noticed early on was the beautiful weather of the off-season. It was winter in Rio and the locals thought it was chilly because it got down to 60ºF (15ºC) at night. I found it quite comfortable and I was thankful to be outside Austin, TX in August. I’m guessing I prefer the Rio winter to the unbearable heat and humidity of the summer.
Rio has the most diverse population of any city I’ve visited. When traveling through China, it was very obvious that I was an outsider. Across Europe, I’ve seen skin colors as varied as off-white, ivory, bone, and eggshell. I’m exaggerating, of course. Any large metropolitan city has a good mix. You can find every race represented in New York, London, or Paris. But the residents of Rio – “cariocas”, as they’re called – represent so many variations and combinations of race as to defy categorization.
The best part of the cab ride was seeing the texture of the landscape. Despite being crammed full of people and buildings, Rio’s natural beauty shines through. Everywhere I looked were rock faces just begging to be climbed. I had brought gear with me and I was really looking forward to a day on the rock once my business trip was complete.
As we neared my hotel, I spotted Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) which was named in the 16th century for its resemblance to traditional shape of concentrated refined sugar. I became instantly infatuated with the 1300 ft. (396 m) peak that rises sharply out of the harbor. My excitement quickly gave way to thoughts of doubt: “I don’t climb as often as I used to. Are there any routes within my abilities? Maybe I’ll need to find an area with shorter routes so I don’t burn out 30 meters from the summit. Will I even be able to find someone to climb with?“
My taxi pulled up to my hotel in Copacabana. I was located two blocks from the beach, a short walk from world-famous Ipanema, and a quick 15-20 minute cab ride from downtown. This proved to be a good home base for the next couple of weeks.
I didn’t sleep well on the plane and my head was spinning with Portuguese phrases and a giant to-do list. I was thankful for the promise of a shower and some shuteye so I could be at my best for work early the next day. Rock climbing would have to wait.
Finding my Footing
I was thankful to be traveling for work. It anchored my day and gave me a reason to interact with locals. My Portuguese was inadequate for anything but basic survival. I am glad there were enough English speakers that I could find answers to my questions and enjoy some interesting conversation.
The view from the office window.
The Rio office was very warm and welcoming. It is full of excitement and is growing steadily under the guidance of Nick, the Sr. Regional Director of South America. While I was there, the office hosted other visitors as well. I had the opportunity to meet Jon, Senior Vice President of the Americas. He has visited Rio a few times and shared his experiences with me, including introducing me to caldo de cana (sugarcane juice). Others in the office spent a lot of time showing me around. Giuliano and Rafael both lived in the United States for some time. It was great to hear their observations on the differences between the two cultures.
I also met my Ukrainian coworker, Valerii (Larry), and his wife Yasya. My first evening in town I got to know them over dinner followed by beer and live music on the boardwalk. It was a thrill to finally meet Valerii in person since we’ve been working together for over six months. Yasya and I don’t share a language. During the few times Larry wasn’t nearby to translate we communicated mostly through charades (which is curiously known as “crocodile” in Ukrainian). I did not expect to learn so much about Ukraine while in Brazil. For example, I discovered that the word for “beach” sounds the same in Ukrainian and French though you might not know it from their looks: “пляж” and “plage”. For my entire trip to Rio, the language center of my brain was working overtime.
One well-known highlight of Rio is the Jardim Botânico (Botanical Garden). The 340-acre garden was founded in 1808 by King John IV of Portugal and has more than 6,500 species of plants on display as well as many sculptures and water features. You could easily spend two hours exploring the grounds. On my flight, Patricia advised me to stop by for the final weekend of a Sebastião Salgado exhibit. I’m glad I did. The photos by this award-winning Brazilian photojournalist blew me away.
Christ the Redeemer from Jardim Botânico.
Another must-see event is the Feira Hippie (Hippie Fair) held on Sundays in Ipanema. This popular open-air market is one of the best I’ve experienced and features all manner of handmade crafts including clothing, jewelry, paintings, and leatherwork as well as local street food. I picked up some good-quality, reasonably-priced gifts for folks back home.
My first thought was, “heroin is much cheaper than I would have guessed.”
My most awkward interaction in Brazil occurred at the Hippie Fair. I kept hearing a clucking sound as I wandered from stall to stall and I finally encountered the source: a man was walking through the crowd selling hand-painted chicken toys made from a cardboard tube, construction paper, tape, and string. As he rubbed his fingers along the string, the vibration was amplified by the body of the toy and produced a surprisingly realistic chicken sound.
A sampling of goods I bought at the Hippie Fair.
The price seemed fair and I decided to buy one for my five-year-old nephew. The vendor held out three: red, blue, and yellow and asked which color I wanted. I answered, “azul” (blue). If he had handed me the toy first, the transaction might have gone smoothly. Instead, he reached into his bag and handed me a small plastic baggie filled with white powder. This was so unexpected that my first thought was, “heroin is much cheaper than I would have guessed.”
Before my brain could fully engage, I handed the bag back to him and said, “I don’t think I need this. Just the bird, please.” He then showed me the powder on his fingers and demonstrated how it increased the vibration when he pulled the string. Ah…corn starch. Makes more sense. I felt foolish for a moment, but I still stand by my policy of immediately refusing any baggie of white powder that I didn’t request.
Sleeping only two blocks from the beach has its advantages. I took the opportunity to play in the waves a couple times. Although I’ve visited the beach a couple times, I grew up in land-locked Pittsburgh, PA and I still don’t fully grasp ocean waves. (Note to self: spend more time at the beach.) While I was figuring out bodysurfing, some children struck up a conversation to ask about the GoPro camera I was holding. We exchanged names; they asked what country I’m from, that sort of thing. I’ve found that conversing with children in a foreign country is usually a good exercise because we have simple conversations and I can (almost) keep up.
The popular tourist spots in Rio were quite enjoyable, but nothing beats knowing locals and learning about the culture. Giuliano was gracious enough to show my new Ukrainian friends and me around. Friday after work he introduced us to some locals at Salvatore Café, a literal hole-in-the-wall. Nobody is allowed inside except to use the restroom, which is only accessible up a staircase so steep it might qualify as a ladder.
We met Giuliano’s wife Romi, Chris and his wife Flavia, Isabel, … and possibly some others. (I drank that night, you see.) Everyone was very friendly and approachable and we conversed late into the night. It was the first time I truly relaxed in Rio.
Climbing the Sugarloaf
I scheduled three days for myself following my business trip. I found a terrific local climbing guide named Gustavo and asked if he could lead me up Sugarloaf. He asked some questions to gauge my ability and suggested a route named The Joker. It has beautiful views and reaches the summit just like any other route on the mountain, but I thought it might be below my ability and I didn’t want to be bored.
In my research I had found the route I wanted: Italianos and Secundo. It’s a classic 5.9/5.10 climb that is more technical and steeper than The Joker. The route leads right up a crack that is easily visible from the cable cars that most visitors use to reach the summit. I somehow convinced Gustavo that I could handle Italianos.
The night before the climb I stretched, hydrated, examined my gear, and stretched some more. I was a little nervous. Would I be able to make the entire 4-hour climb? Or was my mouth writing checks that my body can’t cash?
I met Gustavo at 7:30 in the morning near the entrance to the cable cars. He impressed me with his knowledge of climbing during our short phone conversation the day before. Like most good climbers I know, he conveyed a sense of trustworthiness and peace and we got along right off the bat. This was good, because I was about to literally put my life in his hands.
The approach was a short 20-minute hike to the base of the climb – nearly 500 ft. above sea level. I could see from the first pitch alone that the remaining 800 ft. would present a bigger challenge. Before I knew it I was belaying Gustavo as he flew up the crack and disappeared above a ledge with the swift confidence that comes from climbing a route dozens of times. A few minutes later he was anchored on a ledge and told me to climb when ready. I wiped the grime off my climbing shoes, breathed deeply, gazed at the rock before me, and made that first big move...
There was a period in my life when rock climbing was my default mode. I spent a lot of time with other climbers. I was frequently at the crag or in the rock gym. When I wasn’t, my mind was busy puzzling on some bouldering problem that I had fallen off a few times. I wasn’t anywhere near a professional climber. It was just a big part of my life.
It made sense. As a kid I climbed trees to the top and stood on twigs so thin that a stiff breeze would threaten to snap them and send me hurtling 30 ft. to the ground. In my early teens my eyes were opened to climbing and rappelling on a church youth group trip to North Carolina. I was afraid of heights but I faced those fears because I needed to. My body was built for climbing. I know guys in their 60s who still climb and I was planning to follow in their footsteps. But that rock-climbing period of my life ended too soon.
I haven’t climbed regularly for five years due to an injury (unrelated to rock-climbing) that left me with a torn disc in my back, which is a source of pain to this day. For the first two years it felt like I was being stabbed in the exact same spot with an ice pick. All day. Every day. For two years.
I don’t mean to compare my pain to anyone else’s. Many people have been through more painful and difficult ordeals. But for a long time I thought I was permanently broken and all the good parts of my life were gone forever. If you’re in this state of mind I need to tell you something:
Don’t. You. Dare. Give. Up.
For a couple years after my injury, the idea of me climbing a 6-pitch, 800-ft, 4-hour climb was completely outside the realm of possibility. I’m grateful for all the encouragement, advice, medical care, personal experiences, and friendships that have gotten me this far.
I’ll never forget the words of a guy named Seth who came back from a serious injury to play Ultimate Frisbee again: “You’ll be amazed at how deep a hole you can dig yourself out of.” Hearing those words from him were invaluable and they still echo in my head when the going gets rough. Every time I hop on a climb, getting to the top of the rock is secondary. I’m digging myself out of a deep, dark hole and I’m climbing my way back to health.
That morning with Gustavo on Sugarloaf delivered everything I’ve ever wanted from a day of rock climbing. The weather was absolutely perfect. The rock presented me with challenges right at my skill level. There were moves and sections that were a little sketchy. I sometimes slipped, stumbled, or faltered, but I powered or puzzled through the rough patches.
Gustavo and I continued our conversation at each ledge. We discovered we have climbed in many of the same spots in the United States and we even traded our favorite climbing snacks. He introduced me to paçoca, a candy made from ground peanuts and sugar. In exchange I gave him one of my Bonk Breaker energy bars.
The views were simply stunning with beaches and sailboats down below and favelas crawling like ivy up the ever-steepening hills in the distance. With each pitch I expanded my purview. At one point Gustavo was able to point to his neighborhood, whereas on the ground he could only describe its location. When I was on a ledge belaying I was often gazing down on the large vultures soaring below. It was a treat when, just as I was starting the fourth pitch, a pair of them swooped close enough that I felt the breeze from their giant wings.
To really appreciate this, you’ll have to buy a climbing rope and harness.
As Gustavo made his way up the final pitch, I was conversing with a local climber on the ledge. He told me, “You may not know this, but he’s one of the best climbers in Brazil.” I believe it. He was clearly climbing below his level and I’m grateful for the bits of climbing advice I gleaned throughout the day.
By the time we reached the summit I was scraped-up, exhausted, and sore. That climb took work. It hurt. And it was worth every minute. The satisfaction of reaching the summit was so great that I skipped visiting Christ Redeemer high above Rio the following day. Riding a bus to a mountaintop would just pale in comparison.
After the climb Gustavo and I took the cable car down and continued our conversation at a local “favela restaurant” and my grumbling stomach was treated to some home-cooked Brazilian food. I walked back to my hotel and zonked out the instant my head hit the pillow. There is nothing more refreshing than waking up from a deep sleep brought about by sheer exhaustion.
I hate to think that this will be my last visit to Rio or Brazil. For one thing, I finally have a miniscule command of Portuguese. In the airport on my journey home I was able to order food, confidently pay the proper amount, and help translate for the American woman behind me in line.
I am dying to visit a more remote region and see the Southern constellations. Although I spotted a star here or there, I never got to explore the night sky through the light pollution of the city. I did, however, get to the see St. George killing a dragon on the moon, but that’s a story for another time.
It’s fulfilling to achieve lifetime goals. I can now say I’ve visited four continents as well as both hemispheres. Being immersed in another language and culture, even for only a couple weeks, is worth it every time. I love making new friends in a foreign land. And my first rock climb outside the U.S. was even better than I could have imagined.
I don’t know if I could live this way every day. Maybe. What I do know is that I will jump at the chance to travel or climb every time. The experience always shows me there is more life to be lived. And it isn’t often I get a little taste of the sweet life.
"The great difference between voyages rests not with the ships, but with the people you meet on them."
– Amelia E. Barr
- Nick and the AlugueTemporada.com.br office, for their warm hospitality.
- Jon, for introducing me to caldo da cana (sugarcane juice) and for the good conversation.
- Giuliano and Romi, for their tremendous help. I couldn’t ask for better hosts or guides.
- Rafael, for the good chats over beer.
- Chris, Flavia, and Isabel for giving me a taste of the local scene.
- My coworkers Brian and Trey, for sharing their experiences of visiting the Rio office.
- Dr. Mossé, for the many recommendations. It was great to reconnect.
- Patricia, for spending hours on the plane getting me jazzed about Rio.
- WikiTravel, DuoLingo, and various videos on YouTube, for helping me get a grip on Brazilian Portuguese. My mediocre Spanish vocabulary was sometimes helpful, but it took some work to make sure I wasn’t speaking Portuguese in a funky American/Spanish accent.
- And last but not least, Gustavo, for leading me on the best climb of my life…so far.
by Tom Kane