The instruction was to just run. Don’t run and jump, don’t run too fast or slow, and whatever you do, do NOT run and then stop. My immediate concern at this point, and in my view a very legitimate one at that, was that the platform we were supposed to be running on ended after five metres and was then just cloud. ‘No’, I thought, ‘I don’t think I’ll be doing this’.
“Três…..Dois….Um“. We ran. ‘Oh god’.
After nine or ten steps the reassuring feel of foot on wood gave way to nothing – around me was only grey and the only sounds were the swirling wind around my head and the pounding of my heart somewhere in throat. I glanced up with what must have been a face of horror at my instructor Ricardo, who flashed me a grin, dipped the bar on the hang glider to swing us downwards out of the cloud and with it, my heart jumped from my throat to my mouth – for there was Rio de Janeiro laid out below me. Jagged mountains punctured a vast sprawl of soaring tower blocks and favelas which crept up into forest topped hills, while to the east lay the shimmering Atlantic met by long, golden beaches. It was breathtaking to see, even more to do so from 1700 feet with a warm wind in my face, but then this was a breathtaking city. This was the final day of our two weeks here and once again, with ease, it had managed to exceed every expectation we had.
The standards had been set quite high from the off however, for on our first day here we met Romario. Now, to go to Brazil as a football fan is already quite something, but to see a former World Cup winning Brazilian striker playing football on the beach in his speedos? Well, you just can’t better that really. From dawn until dusk they play football here – it’s a national obsession – and whether it be the likes of Romario and the thousands of other maestros playing foot volley (think volleyball without hands) on the beaches, or groups of children playing on the bustling pavements, you just can’t avoid it. It’s no wonder this is considered the spiritual home of the beautiful game. Having said that, for all their tricks and skills, and whether it be foot volley or just a casual game with flip flops for goal posts, they just don’t seem to appreciate the beauty of a good old fashioned English knee high crunching challenge, they just don’t seem to like it. Weird.
With the World Cup only a few months away, there is a definite sense of excitement and anticipation building in Rio, along with an expectedly large degree of preparation. We visited the iconic Maracanã for a pre season Copa Libertadores game between local rivals Flamengo and Botafogo, and while the match itself was a lot more low key than you’d get from a normal league game between these two, the World Cup rehearsal mode on show was anything but. Having arrived on a shiny, multi lingual instruction clad Metro we were then offered assistance on finding our correct entrance point by no less than eleven official ‘stadium concierges’ on our five minute walk to the ground, which is great until you found they only had one person working on the bar inside. And that’s a non-alcoholic bar as well, so they’ll need to reallocate not only more bar staff, but also a load of extra riot police to deal with the England fans when they find out they can’t have some watered down lager at half time.
We were fortunate enough to have some of Jamie’s wonderfully welcoming family as our hosts in Rio, so aside from being fattened up for our upcoming months of eating on a backpacker budget, an endless supply of caipirinhas and of course, some terrific company and all the comforts of home, we also had our very own travel guides for the city. Having travelled by cable car to the summit of Sugar Loaf mountain for gobsmacking views, we then took a drive up Corcovado to Cristo Redentor, (the Christ the Redeemer statue) to do the same. As landmarks go, the statue is about as iconic as they come – even a week after arriving you still find yourself catching sight of it and think, ‘Bloody hell, I’m in Rio!’ – and despite the horrendous crowds that accompany a visit it’s surely one of the most rewarding tourist spots going. Over the following days we would visit various places around the city – Lapa aqueduct, the Maracanã, the Sambadrome for Carnaval – and think back to how tiny they had looked within the sprawl of Rio when seen from the feet of Christ.
Also included in any lofty view of the city are Rio’s beaches, which to be quite honest are a world unto their own. Whether we were on the sand at Barra da Tijuca, Copacabana, Leblon or Ipanema, we would happily while away the hours watching the cariocas come and go, who without fail would all adhere to the exact same rules. First and foremost, wear as little as possible. With the men in nut clenching speedos and the womens bronzed backsides engulfing any pitiful excuse for bikini bottoms they wear, it seems the most important subject on the beaches here is the presentation of the Brazilian arse. The second rule of the beach is not to move for anything. Any item you could possibly want will at some point come to you; fancy an ice cream or a beer? There’s a hawker for that. Need some more sun cream or new sunglasses? There’s a hawker for that too. Want some candy floss, a sarong, some nuts or Globo biscuits, a sombrero, a bucket and spade, a bracelet, a bubble blowing machine, skewered prawns, a kite, a football, a cup of tea, some new trousers, a rubber ring, some açai, a newspaper, some coconut milk or a paddling pool? Yep, I think you get my point.
In an escape from the madness of Rio’s beaches, we made our way in land in search of a different side to the city and in doing so, paid a visit to Escadaria Scalerón – otherwise known as the tiled steps of Lapa. They are the work of Chilean born Jorge Scalerón who took on a one man mission to decorate the steps outside his home – at first with his own tiles and then with donated versions from around the globe. Having started as a side project it went onto become his obsession until January 2013, when he was found dead in mysterious circumstances at the feet of his steps. At the time of his death the staircase was still a work in progress, having already taken 23 years and over 2000 tiles from over 60 countries, suddenly that weekend redecorating your bathroom doesn’t seem like such a big job, eh? From the top of the staircase we wandered up to the bohemian streets of Santa Teresa, where a crumbling facade is kept alive by the scores of artists and painters who call this home. Its cobbled streets are a world away from the madness of Rio central down below, but as it merges into the Tijuca Forest further uphill the sense of being in one of the worlds busiest metropolises is all but lost. We ventured up into the 32km² of native rainforest, where aside from the old colonial buildings, former slave houses and a network of hiking trails, we were amazed to find such tranquility within a 10 minute drive of such chaos – but then that’s the beauty of Rio de Janeiro, that it never fails to keep you guessing. In an unforgettable two weeks here – my 30th birthday (you think I chose to do a hang glide?!) and Carnaval included – we’d come to fall in love with a city we’d heard so much about but of which we knew so little. I guess sometimes you just need to take a deep breath and jump into the unknown.
Actually, don’t jump – just run.