Done with the beach and the beautiful people, I got on bus no. 127 and went downtown to the Porto Maravilha. This Rio de Janeiro is a whole other world. This Rio is a mess. There are perhaps traces of this along the beaches at Ipanema, Copacabana and Leblon, but the hedonistic fantasy of the beach culture is nowhere to be found around what was once Guanabara Bay. Everything about this side of Rio is contradictory, confusing, and complicated: geographically, culturally, visually.
The old port of Rio is a construction site. The city is pumping millions of euros into a whole new infrastructure to make Rio dazzle for the 2016 Olympic Games. The noise and mess of the works are an obstacle course to the dramatic and tragic urban conglomeration that bleeds into the central business district, colonial heritage neighborhood of Lapa and the city’s 18th century imperial, now cultural, centre. Already, it’s a city that is more illegible than any other I know.
I followed the path of the slave traffickers from the excavated remains of the Valongo Wharf up past the fattening houses, and onto the market where they were sold in the early 1800s. With each step I passed a different history. A façade with no building behind it sits next to an abandoned warehouse, which is attached to a brightly coloured renovation being used as a storefront for electrical goods. 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s architecture sits on top of each other as though the facades and derelict buildings are just as their occupants left them hundreds of years ago. I wandered down what looked like a busy commercial street, only to find that one block in, the business transactions were not entirely legal. Men and dogs lay on the road, non-functioning traffic lights had fallen off their poles, and most people sat in silence watching me walk past. About a block away I saw the cable car lines and I quickly realized I was at the entrance to the Morro da Providencia favela. I walked to the next corner and rather than being deeper into the favela, I came across a young Chinese girl serving sandwiches and drinks. I pointed to a sandwich to which she replied “ham and cheese” She spoke English. She and her boyfriend had lived in the neighbourhood for 10 years, straight off the boat from Guangzhou. Why, I asked her, did you come to Rio de Janeiro? Her parents had moved here during the Bush years to work on the railways.
She was delightful and in her minimal English she became intent on directing me back to Ipanema on the metro. She waved her finger in disapproval at the idea of the bus, though she did suggest I walk back through into the territory I had just left. I am sure it must have been safe, but it didn’t feel like it. I was having such a hard time reading Rio de Janeiro that I was willing to believe her against my better instincts.
It doesn’t feel as though the construction in the area is going to be finished anytime soon. I imagined drinking café macchiatos on the terrace of one of a row of competing coffee shops that might result from investors building houses behind the empty facades. There is so much potential here, it is a treasure chest waiting to be opened. But no one has the money to rebuild the houses. The empty facades are all for sale. It’s unclear who is selling them because they are heritage-listed buildings and it doesn’t look as though anyone owned them since they were last occupied.
I felt the complication of this city whose varying histories are written on these surfaces. On the one hand, it feels as though nothing has changed since it was first colonized in 1565 by the Portuguese. At least, it feels as though one building is just put on top of another, the whole city adopting the (non)planning protocols of a favela. It has the look of buildings being erected in empty nooks, on an unoccupied piece of cliff on a mountains, one on top of the other. But then, I hear people talk of the controversial razing of buildings to make way for a new government pet project. What to believe? What I see? What I hear? What I know already? So many different stories of what Rio is.
If the appearance of old port city of Rio reflects this confusion through its mélange of more styles than I have ever seen woven together, geographically, the city is even more obscure. The Cariocas constantly refer to the Northwest, Rio South, and the Centre. But I never quite know where I am, mostly because of the sheer rock faced mountains that circle a landfilled bay that was already a whole series of bays to begin with. And then there are mountains inland as well, obscuring any overall view across the city. Added to this, the distances are vast, the traffic is dense and intense, the cars and buses have poor suspension. Getting around and finding my way are never smooth or direct. And so my first impressions of Rio are filled with questions, confusions and disorientation.