Monday, November 30, 2009

Bonito Brasil

"Dallas is not available," my managers stated flatly. It was June and the end of the one year assignment I had taken in Los Angeles. They were now trying to find new homes for each of the six of us on the team and after telling me my first choice was off the table made me an offer: San Francisco.

"Give me the weekend to think about it," I countered. Neither city offered a cheap cost of living but I knew I didn't want to stay in L.A. Taking the position meant secure, high visibility employment. Turning it down started the 30-day clock for me to find something else within the company or leave. I needed to think and I had to act fast.

I took the rest of the afternoon off, dashed to LAX and hopped a flight to Miami from where I picked up a connection to South America. Some 17 hours after leaving Los Angeles I arrived in Rio de Janeiro, the legendary Brazilian party town that I was about to experience in legendary fashion.

After arriving at the hotel I immediately signed up for a half-day tour. Our itinerary included the beautiful stained glass cone of the Sao Sebastiao Cathedral. The design of the building allows naturaly light to shine in from all sides but the most memorable moment here for me was being scolded by the tour guide for wandering off to get a better picture angle. Rio's opportunistic street urchins were everywhere and any tourist was fair game.

The biggest lesson I learned was that Carnival is indeed a citywide event but only after each samba "school" competes in tournament at the Sambadromo, a mile long boulevard where performances are staged in front of judges and high society. This quiet, unassuming stretch of concrete dead-end comes alive in ebullient grandeur once a year but otherwise sits empty. We ooh'd and ahh'd politely at the canyon like risers around us but the thrill is definitely of the need-to-be-there variety.

A drive by of the massive Maracana Stadium sufficed as a visit on the tour as we motored on to the statue of Christ the Redeemer high above the city. Words only minimize the impact of the view. Religious or not, even Christian or not, the site, the statue and the setting never fails to bring the strongest emotions to the fortunate visitor. We could have stayed the rest of the day but had to press on.

The beach culture being what it is in Rio it seems natural to include at least one on the tour. Unexpectedly, though, we were taken to a fairly quiet section of a park and down a path through some greenery to a forlorn, sand-pitted stone statue. This impressionistic earth-toned carving, intoned the guide, was as important to the rhythm of Rio as Carnival itself.

It was Yemanja, goddess of the sea. Afro-American traditions across the ocean identify her as the queen of the ocean, protector of children and the essence of motherhood, from whom all life comes. Every New Year's Eve, citizens of Rio in the millions come to the ocean to honor her spirit and then, of course, they party, in sort of a just for family warm-up to the international madness of Carnival.

The last stop for the afternoon just as the sun was beginning to wane belonged to Sugarloaf Mountain, the bookend to Corcovado as an international symbol of Rio. Looking like half of an American football sticking out of the sand, Sugarloaf sits at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, guarding sun-soaked beaches laid out in all directions and stocked with speedos and T-back thongs. The mountain offers panoramic views of the ocean, city and mountains; the trouble is getting to the top for that world class view.

Rock climbers help themselves, the rest of us take a hanging cable car. The fight scene from "Moonraker" playing in my mind, the contraption sailed quickly and smoothly to the summit where the view exceeded its billing, as everything in Rio does. Facing west we viewed a textbook golden sunset over the city, the welcoming arms of Christ the Redeemer enveloping us in warm silhouette. Later, sighs of relief at reaching solid ground mixed in with sighs of satisfaction at the end of probably the best half-day city tour I've ever experienced.

And the timing was perfect, too. Back at the hotel I changed clothes, caught the shuttle back to the airport and flew back to Los Angeles that same night. Thirty-five hours of flying for barely 12 hours on the ground in Rio? It was worth it, and I made my decision about San Francisco, too.
Gotta go.

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