Looking Down on Rio

In my travels over the years, I’ve learned a few tricks of the trade. For instance, I would never, ever assume that the country I planned to visit—say, Brazil—didn’t require a visa. And I certainly wouldn’t show up at the Newark airport after a big going-away party only to be informed that I was mistaken and the penalty for landing on Brazilian soil without a visa is $5,000 and immediate deportation. No, I wouldn’t do that, because that would be really stupid and embarrassing.

So, after several days at the Brazilian Consulate, I arrived back at the Newark airport with a tourist visa, some issues with the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and a severely bruised ego. I was in such a piss-poor mood that the only consolation I could find was that I wasn’t the first white man to have difficulty traveling to Brazil. The first white men to have problems in this part of the world were trying to get from Lisbon to the East Indies in 1500 when they got lost off the African coast and drifted across the Atlantic for weeks before setting eyes on the land covered with brazil wood. In those days, the penalty for arriving uninvited was cannibalism. For some reason, the Portuguese decided not to linger and waited until 1532 before establishing a colony. Even so, Brazil’s first bishop met his maker dangling over an Amerindian cooking fire before being consumed by those he had failed to convert.

Nothing washes away a 15-hour flight to Rio de Janeiro like joining a busload of elderly Brits on a mindless tour. This group had just arrived from Buenos Aires, where they had wildly celebrated Argentina’s thrashing of Serbia in the first round of the World Cup. I settled into an easy discussion with Jack and Marge, two working-class Newcastle fanatics, about how much we were looking forward to watching Brazil play Japan in the homeland of the jogo bonito (“beautiful game”).

Our morning itinerary consisted of a train trip up Corcovado (“Hunchback”) Mountain, which plays platform to Rio’s best known icon, Christ the Redeemer. This soaring statue of an open-armed Jesus seems so warm and inviting until you look closely and notice the stigmata. It also has the distinction of being the largest Art Deco statue in the world. It’s like The Passion of the Empire State Building.

Before settling on the welcoming Jesus that has come to symbolize the warmth of the Brazilian people (as long as you have a visa), Rio considered a cross, Jesus with a globe in his hands, and a globe on a plinth. If the Catholics who built Christ the Redeemer had foreseen that evangelical Protestants would succeed in converting 15 percent of their countrymen, they might have opted for a statue of Peter with a key in his hand.

The afternoon portion of the Rio vertigo tour was a cable-car ride up the 1,300-foot Sugarloaf Mountain, so named, according to the tour guide, because it’s shaped like refined loaf of sugar. I’ll have to take her at her word. Since there is nothing at the top of Sugarloaf, the purpose seems to be to give tourists the opportunity to gaze down on the wondrous topographical diversity of Rio: rain forests, mountains, lagoons, rivers, crystal blue ocean waters, and miles upon miles of pristine beaches.

Despite the best efforts of apologists like Niall Ferguson, I still have my reservations about colonialism. But as I gazed down on the truly spectacular view of Rio, I had to reconsider. If the devil himself had lifted me up to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain 400 years ago and offered me this kingdom in exchange for the enslavement and conversion of the Amerindian population and a few million Africans, I would have had to think for a while before turning him down.

Of course, it is a question of perspective. I’m a tourist; the Portuguese were merchants in religious robes. Even after the discovery of sugar cane and gold, Brazil spent most of its colonial period as a backwater in the Portuguese empire. In 1558, the revenue from Brazil amounted to less than 3 percent of the crown’s income, while trade with India amounted to 26 percent. It was Napoleon who taught Lisbon the value of a peripheral colony across the ocean. Or, to be more specific, it was his invasion of Portugal in November 1807. In one of the less courageous moments in history, the regent Prince Dom João VI opted to flee to Brazil with his entire court (somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people), officer corps, high clergy, and bureaucracy, including the royal treasury, government archives, a printing press, and several libraries—a retreat so complete it makes Dolley Madison’s seem like a weekend trip to the Hamptons. The arrival of the court in Rio altered the colony’s sense of itself and eventually led to independence.

On the way back to the hotel, the bus stopped at a gas station. There were three pumps: two marked Gasolina and one marked Alcool. This year, Brazil achieved energy independence in no small measure by relying on processed sugar-cane ethanol and flex-fuel cars. It is a news story we professional journalists have greeted in different ways. Tim Russert used it while grilling U.S. energy executives in his unique brand of political interview as legal deposition. For Tom Friedman, it served as a free-floating paragraph in his dozen or so columns about green being the new color of American patriotism. I decided to honor Brazil’s accomplishment by exclusively powering my trip with another sugar-cane-based fuel: the caipirinha, a mixture of sugar, lime, crushed ice, and cachaca.