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     Volume 8 Issue 68 | May 8, 2009 |

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Rio De Janeiro
The Marvelous City

Azizul Jalil

The local people have admiringly given Rio de Janeiro a nickname, in Portuguese -A Cidade Maravilhosa, or “The Marvelous City.” Commonly known as just Rio, it truly deserved the name. With our friend, Abul Siddique, we left the colourful springtime of Washington with pink cherries, white and copper-tone dogwoods and delicately purple plum trees in full bloom and arrived in an autumnal Rio, thus jumping the hot and humid summer season of Washington. We could only imagine how beautiful it might have been in Rio's spring time. But even in its autumn glory with mild weather and occasional yellow and red blossoms in large trees along the roads and on the hills, and endless lines of palm trees on ocean front with its fine pale, almost white sandy beaches, it was indeed magnificent. The water was light blue and transparentat places one could see the stones and fishes of all sizes in the ocean bed.

With delight, we sat on the sidewalk of the wide, softly carved Atlantic Avenue running parallel to the ocean for miles and had green coconuts cracked open in front of us and enjoyed the heavenly drink with a straw pipe in the cool evening ocean-breeze. Occasionally, a hawker would approach us at the fag end of his selling day and offer various products like bangles and necklaces made of beads, shells and stone at extraordinarily low prices. My wife would indulge herself, always looking for gifts for her children and the grandchildren. One noticeable feature of the sidewalks everywhere in the city, particularly near the oceanfront, was the highly ornamental design made with grey, black and pink-coloured stone squares. It was a mosaic of interlinked waves rising high and then falling in a systematic pattern. One could experience the monotony of the sound of the tides and then reflect on the silent, still mosaic of waves on the sidewalk. Whoever conceived this, must have been an artistic person of great imagination and creativity!

A few words about Rio de Janeiro (River of January): Founded in 1906 by the Portuguese explorers who thought the place was near a river (Rio). They arrived in the month of January, so they named the area 'Janeiro.' Thus, the city got the name. The second largest city of Brazil and South America, it was the capital of Brazil for nearly two centuries-from 1763 to1822 during the Portuguese colonial era, and from1822 to 1960, as an independent nation. In 1960, the capital was moved about 700 kilometers to the northwest of Rio to the newly built city of Brasilia. Rio however remains the most important urban centre with a population of six million. It is full of high and low mountains and the Atlantic sea seems to be present everywhere. The population is multi-ethnic, composed of a mixture of the descendents of original Brazilian Indians, African slaves brought in for the coffee plantations and the mines and the Portuguese settlers. In discussions with the local people on this delicate issue, we gathered that a Brazilian identity and nationhood has developed over the years, with all the people we talked to identifying themselves as proud Brazilians. One or two did hint at some job-discrimination-we had no way to verify that.

After our arrival in the morning in Rio, we sat down with a tour agency, conveniently located next-door to our hotel near the ocean. We chalked out a program of visits and sightseeing for a few days. The events we selected for that evening were a dinner in a traditional restaurant and a folklore show. The dance performance after dinner was in an adjoining place called 'Plataforma' in a gorgeous maroon-coloured hall with a big stage. That was essential as the ethnic numbers- Samba and other Africanorigin dances, had a large number of male and female performers dressed in colourful costumes with plumes on their head and feathers all over them. It appeared that many of these related to wars and victory celebration of tribal groups. It was unfortunate that there was no introduction to the items- many in the audience hungered for some education in the origin and history of the traditional dances. That however did not diminish our enjoyment of the two hours of non-stop exotic music and rhythmic dances.

Next morning, nice and early, we went by bus on a ten-hour city-tour. The city has charm and beauty and is full of large parks giving the impression of an urban forest. We visited Maracana- the big football stadium, fine cathedrals and other important government buildings and the concrete stands for 75000 viewers at the starting point of the famous Rio Carnivals. Brazilians are huge football fans and occasional world champions. The stadium-Maracana, opened in 1950 accommodates 174000 people. Soon after its opening, the World Cup final was played there between Brazil and Uruguay. Brazil was expected to win but lost by one goal. There is a sad anecdote of the Brazilian goalkeeper, Moacir Barbosa, who was blamed for the defeat and shunned after the match by all his friends and even his relations. Fifty years later, shortly before he died in 2000, he was quoted as saying “I have been paying for 50 years while “the maximum punishment in Brazil was
30 years' imprisonment.”

We went to the Sugarloaf Mountain, which has a commanding view of the city and the ocean. We had to go to a certain height by bus and then take two separate cable cars to the top-most point. Unfortunately, there was rain and dense fog, which clouded our vision completely. It was supposed to be a warm day but turned out to be a cool and rainy day. Similarly, when we reached by train the top of the Corcovado Mountain, where a giant 38 metres high stone statue of Christ, known as Christ the Redeemer stands with his two hands spread across, there was such a drenching rain that we were able to barely catch a glimpse of the statue from the base. During our visit, we met no one of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi origin but unexpectedly met Umar Husain, a very warm, elderly person of Syrian origin, whose father, a Muslim, had gone to settle in Argentina after World War II. Married to a Catholic, he himself was an agnostic but seemed to know a lot of Muslim history, religion and traditions and the situation in the Indian sub-continent, including Bangladesh. In the afternoon, we were supposed to visit the Ipanema Beach but the rain spoiled it all and we returned frustrated.

The following day, we spent partly at the nearby scenic Copacabana beach, and partly walking around looking at the shops on the Copacabana Avenue. We then took a long and nice, scenic taxi-ride on the Atlantic Avenue, visiting the largest shopping mall in townthe Barra Mall. We found nice leather goods and clothing there but could not find any place selling Brazilian handicrafts. It was the same in other shopping areas including the downtown. Rio with all its charm and beauty has also the reputation of one of the violent cities in the world. Much of the crime emanates from the favelas or shantytowns but also spills into middle and high-income areas. We noticed that Brazil was quite democratic, where unlike other major cities in the world many of the slums are adjacent to posh areas. We were forewarned by friends in Washington. When we enquired from local residents, they said it was like any other large city like New York but advised that valuables and cameras be not displayed in public places and urged prudent care and caution. We walked the streets in the Copacabana area and also went to the congested downtown shopping areas- we saw no untoward incident. The police were everywhere and heavily deployed particularly after dusk at street corners. The downtown Rue Saara shops and nearby arcades reminded us of the Banga bazaar or the shops behind Dhaka's new market. Bargaining was possible there, indeed necessary and the prices were very reasonable for a rather expensive city like Rio.

On another day, we went on a long bus ride with a jolly tour guide through the picturesque countryside and mountainous roads. A seven-hour boat tour of the Angra Islands followed. These were the high lights of our visit. Angra is a group of 300 small and large islands in the Atlantic of which the Ilha Grande was the biggest island. Some people left the boat to swim near two of the small island coasts in transparent blue water where fishes were also merrily swimming. In the Ilha Grande, we had a very pleasant buffet lunch at a beach restaurant. Tables and chairs were set up under a canopy but the chairs were unstable and sinking in the sand. With chicken, fish, French fries, beans, and chocolate and vanilla ice cream bars and the ocean a few feet away, it was a satisfying and novel experience. What was a bit dangerous was getting back into the boat which was swinging wildly in the developing rain storm. It was late afternoon and we began the two-hour journey back to the small port amidst heavy rainstorm and got drenched by the cold water. It soon became dark and we were concerned about the stability of the mediumsized motorboat, and our safety. Meanwhile, a wooden board somehow fell in the wide ocean from the boat. I was hoping that the boat owners would let it go-instead, they swiftly made a 360 degree turn and one of the drivers jumped in the cold ocean water and made a daring effort to recover the piece. The man received loud applause from all the passengers for a bold and successful attempt.

On the last day, we visited the Museum of the Brazilian Republic. The big old building was completed in 1867 and called Catete Palace. It was the home of a wealthy sugarcane planter and was the venue of important meetings and constitutional conferences. Later, it was used as a presidential palace, where in the attic bedroom which we visited, two-time President Getulio Vargas committed suicide. He had differences with the military who demanded his resignation. Unable to placate the generals, Vargas shot himself on August 24, 1954. He wrote a letter to the Brazilian people known as “carta testamento.” The last lines read, “Serenely, I take my first step on the road to eternity and I leave life to enter history.” On exhibit in the Palace are his nightshirt with a bullet hole in the chest and the revolver used by him.

Before leaving Rio that night for the return flight, we had our last meal on the roof at the 15 th floor of the oceanfront Windsor Miramar Hotel, sister to our hotel-Windsor Martinique and only 30 yards away. It was early evening and the sun had set, leaving a crimson coloured haze just above the horizon. From our perch at such a great height, we enjoyed an unforgettable, panoramic view of miles of the Atlantic Ocean and its beaches, the surrounding trees, greenery and the mountains. It was indeed a grand finale to a few days of savouring nature's beauty, and bliss and experiencing all the excitement of Rio.

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