FIFA`s random selection draw for tickets to the 2014 World Cup Brazil goes live this afternoon. With four group matches, 1 Round of 16 and the final at Maracana, Rio is guaranteed to be an experience of a lifetime.
Tall and tan and young and lovely/ The girl from Ipanema goes walking/ And when she passes
Each one she passes goes haaa... except, this is winter and there is no beautiful Brazilian woman sauntering along the shores of Rio ahead of me. In fact, the postos (numbered posts that demarcate sections of the beach, each of which attracts a particular sort a people) are practically forlorn. This is clearly not the best time to catch an eyeful of toned Brazilian bunda (butt). So what am I doing here in the wrong season? Well, to be fair, I wouldn’t call it the wrong season. The temperature at the start of winter, which extends from June to September, is just perfect for visitors from the tropics. More importantly, the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa matches start in a few days so I’ll get to watch the cariocas (natives of Rio de Janeiro) go wild with football fever. There probably couldn’t have been a better time or place to catch up with an old friend.
Beach Babes and Football Fever
A look at the coast of Rio on the map reveals two curves cupping the Atlantic ocean; with Leblon and Ipanema forming one arc and Copacabana the other. We stroll along the surf from elitist Leblon to Ipanema and on to the kitschy Copacabana, munching biscoito globos (crispy snacks) that we got at a bit of discount, probably because my friend speaks Portuguese and also because the young snack seller knows today is not one of those big-business days.
We have the beach almost all to ourselves. A few days from now, it will be practically impossible to wade through the sea of yellow and green clad people flooding the beach, near the 50-square meter screen set up on Copacabana to screen the World Cup 2010 matches. Even if you don`t succeed in securing a seat for the final at Maracana, which will be completely renovated for the 2014 World Cup, you will get an authentic taste of Brazil at the beach screenings.
Rio comes to a stand-still on Brazil match days; super markets are closed, offices leave early or TVs are set up to screen the match at work places. If you thought India was patriotic about cricket, Brazil worships football with the fervour of a religious fanatic. And this is just the South Africa World Cup. I can`t even begin to imagine the party that the Brazil World Cup is going to be. Despite the rumblings of protest and dissent, it seems unlikely that football will do anything but unite Brazil.
Sidewalks and Cafes
There are surfers in the water at Arpoador, between Ipanema and Copacabana. We pick up caipirinhas (a cocktail of cachaça, lime and sugar) at one of the stalls along the road and keep walking. The distinctive squarish pattern of the Ipanema sidewalk gives way to the wave-like curves of the Copacabana sidewalk.
Rio is filled with little eateries, where you can have a meal by the kilo, and a good meal at that. Don`t forget to try out the chope (draft beer). Meat-eaters, must absolutely not return without a taste of churrascaria, which is a practical meat fest. In rodizio-style restaurants, waiters armed with knives and various kinds of meat—beef, pork, filet mignon, ham, duck, lamb and other local cuts—speared onto a skewer, will come around to your table and carve out generous slices for you. While feijoida (stew of beans with beef and pork) served with rice is the staple diet here, the sushi in Brazil is top-notch too. Not surprising, since Brazil has the largest population of Japanese (approximately 1.5 million Japanese-Brazilians) outside Japan.
Garcia & Rodrigues offers a sumptuously traditional Brazilian breakfast comprising queijo minas (fresh cheese), ham, a bread basket, fresh fruit, honey, in-house fruit preserves, butter, eggs, hung-curd and granola. You must try the traditional salgados (savories) and doces (sweets) at Cafe Colombo, especially the brigadeiro, a confection of condensed milk, unsalted butter and cocoa. Now that we`re talking of cocoa and seeing how you are in the country that produces one-fourth of the world’s coffee, you might want to taste some authentic Brazilian coffee. Another beverage you can`t leave without tasting is cachaça (distilled sugarcane juice, which appears to be an exceedingly popular alcoholic beverage in Brazil and way beyond). Do stop by the Academia de Cachaça, for a taste of their unusual mixes, even if you’ve already had a taste of the spirits and night life at the bars below the Lapa Arches.
Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), stands with arms outstretched to envelop the world, atop the 2,329-foot Corcovado. The view from here is stunning, and we can actually see why Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain) is called so. Silhouetted against the afternoon sun, it does indeed resemble an assortment of freshly baked bread. Another excursion takes us to the top of Sugarloaf. We took the cable cars up this time, but we’re coming back some day to hike up. If you time yourself to reach the top just when the sun is setting, you’ll see Brazil`s night-lights flicker to life. The city looks as if it was poured into the mountains along the Guanabara Bay, which Portuguese explorer Gaspar de Lemos mistook for a river when he christened it Rio de Janeiro (River of January) when he landed here on 1st January 1502.
Despite favelas (slums) featuring prominently on Brazilian art, not all winding mountain roads lead up to the slums. Of particular note is Santa Theresa, which has managed to retain its old-world charm, with lovely cafes, an old tramline and even art shops. You`ll never regret a day spent here. While the history-laden streets of Petropolis and the sandy shores of Buzios (popularised by Bridget Bardot) are two other places that make for great day trips; there’s so much to see in quaint old Parathy that you’ll never want to leave.
Lets Talk Shop
The local markets are amazing to stroll through sampling berries and other fruits. But each locality has it's own designated market day, so you'll have to ask around to find out which day that is. If you miss the local market, there is always the trinket-filled Hippee Feira at Ipanema on Sunday and the night market along Copacabana.
Saara is a sort-of wholesale/retail shopping area, where you can find everything and nothing. People spontaneously start conversations with you, and it takes a few minutes of smiling politely and not exactly offering appropriate responses for them to realise that you're not Brazilian. Speaking of which, do try to pick up a tad of Portuguese before you head to Brazil or there's a lot you'll miss out on.
The Long Way Home
Still the familiar lyrics bossa nova across my mind as I stroll through the edge of the surf, turning around occasionally to watch the waves sweep my footprints back into the Atlantic Ocean. The Dois Irmãos (two brothers) stand tall, shoulder to shoulder far out in the ocean, their rugged mountain faces probably grinning at the serendipity of two old friends strolling along the shore, some 14,791-odd km from home.
Heading to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil?
www.fifa.com/worldcup — For the official version of match schedules, ticketing, pricing, et al
www.quora.com/2014-FIFA-World-Cup/How-should-we-structure-a-trip-to-the-... — For insider and outsider info on the expected scenario in Brazil, travel planning advice, the best places to visit and a whole lot more
www.latinaventuras.com — For expertise and insight from an Indian travel company specialising in travel to South America, which recommends that you consider visiting Peru, North Argentina, Equador and Colombia, since you're already travelling halfway across the world
(Pic courtesy: Averil Nunes)