Author: Joey Taylor
I’ve found one constant in travel:
You don’t take the trip; the trip takes you.
Call it karma, serendipity, providence, or happy little accidents, but my best travel experiences have been those that I had no conscious role in creating. This is one of those experiences.
It was my last night of summer; the next day I would be leaving the sultry heat of Rio to return to the frozen wasteland of Washington to begin the 49 weeks of work it would take to earn another taste of freedom. I was staying in a stifling apartment just in from the beach in Ipanema. The city was sleepy that night, recovering from the non-stop celebrating of the holidays and resting up for the approaching revelry of carnival. I had spent most of the evening moroning around the neighborhood half out of my mind. I missed my family, friends, and home, but I was sickened by the thought of trading all I had fallen in love with in Brazil for what I loathed in America. Around midnight, I took a walk down to the local supermarket to get water. In line at the cash register, I noticed that the man in front of me didn’t have enough cash and was figuring out what to put back. He was dressed for the beach and buying cookout food. I knew that Brazilians avoid pickpockets by leaving their wallets at home and only carrying the cash they need for the day, so I handed him a ten real note (approx. $4 at that time). He looked surprised, then lit up with a grin Venha comigo parceiro, estamos festejando na praia. At that point, any of the extreme risk-aversion and paranoia that is so ingrained in the American mind – yes even my own – was overshadowed by the doom of my departure, so I accepted and walked with him to the beach with the notion that if he were an opportunistic kidnapper, such an event would give me a solid excuse for staying in-country.
Arriving at the far end of Ipanema, where the sand curves out to the Rock of Arpoador and offers a beautiful viewing angle of the Ipanema and Leblon beachfronts framed by the mountains and the favelas that cling to them like climbers scaling a monolith, we joined my new friend’s companions, a combination of stoners, dancers, and samba musicians refining their beats for the upcoming blocos. The group sat in a circle around the crude camp stove that held the fire for barbecuing, speaking entirely too fast for me to follow any conversation, but with the warmness that is universally understood. Food, drinks, and joints were passed around, the fire burned and the music played, deep into the night.
Along about 4AM or so, someone asked me in Portuguese “Do you want to see the most beautiful sunrise in the world?” I gave the only appropriate response “Of course!” Those of us who went exchanged ciaos and beijos with the ones who stayed behind, we piled into a VW bus combine taxi and rode down the oceanfront boulevard past the hotels and nightlife and up around the mountain, turning onto a side road that led us into the Vidigal favela. The bus climbed the hill until it became too steep for the ethanol fueled engine to power up, making it necessary for us to climb the streets the rest of the way. The dogs that served as the police warning for the favela set to howling and following us to mark our location, possibly causing a few people to make hasty and unnecessary getaways. We used the lights from our smartphones to make our way single-file through tiny alleyways past shacks with missing walls and nothing between us and the sleeping souls only a few feet away.
We climbed out of the labyrinthic slum into the forest, taking the path that narcos used to escape police raids around the back of the mountain to a panoramic vista of the Rocinha favela, the largest slum in Latin America and home to somewhere between 800,000 and 1.2 million people. It was spectacularly breathtaking at night, a dense jumble of lights and the sort of spontaneous order that is most evident in anarchy.
After scrambling up a series of steep switchbacks, the forest began to thin as the ground turned from dirt to granite. Cresting the summit, my breath caught in my throat; all of Zona Sul and beyond lay at my feet, lit in perfect contrast to the inky blackness of the ocean, mountains, and sky. We found our places on the top of Irmao Maior and sat in awed silence. Near the coastline in the ocean, the sky began to change to a deep navy, than lighten and grow as the moment approached. And suddenly there it was – the most beautiful sunrise in the world.
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