To paraphrase a verse from Gilberto Gil’s hit “Aquele Abraço”, when Mum and Dad arrived, Rio de Janeiro continued beautiful. There was no doubt that this was one of the best places to live in the world; apart from its generous coastal line with exuberant beaches, the Cidade Maravilhosa – the marvellous city – boasted the largest urban forest in the world – the Tijuca National Park, a place so vast that helicopters would sometimes spend days searching for lost hikers. With my parents’ British habit of going on walks and not much patience for spending the entire weekend sun bathing on crowded beaches – nor any friends to do this with them- they got to know the park very well. As soon as my sister and I were able to follow them, they took us along regularly. Exciting as they were, the outings were never dangerous. Sure, the forest was home to venomous snakes, but we never came across any and, as far as wild beasts were concerned, the city’s growing population had hunted them to extinction long ago. Nevertheless, a magical feeling always infected us in the silence of the dense, primeval forest, only broken by the noises of insects, by bird calls and by the crystal-clear water cascading down small streams.
Every trail eventually led up to a massive rock that was usually hard to climb. It took some effort to reach their summits, but these exertions – that very few cariocas undertook – were always worthwhile. From up there we could marvel at the breathtaking views of the city, of the bay and of the coast, a reminder to my parents of what it was that first attracted them to Rio. Mum would unpack the picnic and serve her egg mayonnaise sandwiches, which rather than leaving it to Maria, she always made a point in making herself.
On one of our many walks, I heard a rattling coming from the trees above us. I looked up and saw the foliage moving in a strange choreography: there was a monkey jumping around the branches as if playing in a funfair. The monkey was not alone – he was followed by at least twenty others, including babies clinging onto their mothers’ backs. They stopped for a while and stared at us with curiosity. Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared back into the timeless forest.
The city that stood in our – and the monkeys’ – background spread out along the coast beneath us resembling one of the forest’s butterflies’ enormous pair of wings. From our vantage point, we could see the huge Guanabara Bay opening out to the Atlantic ocean. On the opposite shore was Niterói, an important city in its own right, and behind it there was a never ending sea of hills and beaches. To the north was the Ilha do Governador (Governor’s Island), the location of the airport; my parents’ introduction to Brazil.
On our side of the Bay was the ocean-facing Zona Sul with its picture-postcard places: Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and the Sugar Loaf Mountain. Following the coast we could see the – then deserted – beaches of São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca which were only visible from the highest points in the forest. Closer to us stood the church spires and office buildings in the city centre and the seemingly endless sprawl of industrial buildings, low-rise housing of the Zona Norte. This was where the poor and the lower middle class lived and in our snobbishness, we considered those two thirds of the city as being on the “wrong side” of the forest, somewhere unworthy of our attention. The only recognizable feature there was the Maracanã Stadium: the supreme temple of Brazilian football.
At the feet of the forest’s hills there were favelas marking the boundaries between the city and the thick bush. This was where the poor lived. Some of them had originated as small quilombos – hiding places set up by fugitive slaves who chose these precipitous mountainsides as they provided the perfect shelter from patrols in search of escaped “property”. The favelas had developed into agglomerations that looked like anthills, where chickens, pigs and dogs roamed in the mud alleyways around the inhabitants’ wooden huts. Crooked electricity posts, television antennae and clothes drying on strings added extra layers to the seeming chaos.
Their inhabitants wore torn clothes and old Havaianas flip-flops and had curly hair, dark skin, loud voices and open laughs. Children ran around barefoot, their mums trudging up and down the steep alleys that curled along the hills balancing tins of water, or sacks of dirty laundry, on their heads. Although many of the favelados were white, this was a Brazil derived directly from Africa.