Posted by: standing_baba | July 17, 2010

Entering Rio by Bike

[4:45 AM] When my alarm sounded the world was a blank slate, as if I had never seen the room or its contents in my life. The metal cot beneath me, two more to my right; white walls; cage encased light bulbs; a fake wood closet, half-opened, with a lonely sock hanging on a hook—all were strangers. “Where was I?” I wondered in a confused awe, the same with which I imagine a baby sees the everyday world, not scared, not mistrustful, just a lazy wonderment with what lays before the eyes.

The rain drops on the window were by far the most interesting items within view, like freckles on a glass face that welcomed me to the waking world. As I regained consciousness my eyes traced designs around the dots, with great care not to interrupt the sleeping ones or be obliterated by those that streamed down the pane with a sky’s worth of momentum. A street light, visible from the same window, confirmed the rain was not a dream; the invisible lines that streaked down from above became real upon entering its halo glow, infused with an orange from an alien world before spattering out of sight. A relentless slick spread like butter across the earth.


[5:00 AM] By five I had already eaten a banana and said goodbye to the firemen who kindly gave me food and shelter the night before. I thanked them for the information. Upon arrival, an informal chat turned into a serious briefing (complete with concerned head nods and napkin maps) on how to enter the city sixty-five kilometers south, Rio de Janeiro, capital of the same state, better known to the world for its beaches and beautiful women than its “violent tendencies” that the Sargent warned me against in its northern outskirts.

Serious eyes: “Don’t stop until you reach the beach, then find a security post immediately.” His parting words weighed upon me as I pushed into the asphalt river.


[5:37 AM] Petropolis’ downtown is historic, with colonial architecture at every corner, but I had arrived too late and left too early to see anything more than the baroque facades of a few sleeping homes. The streets leading toward the turnpike were cobblestone, uneven, with gaps wide enough to pinch tires, bend rims during lateral falls. Each rain-slick brick was a false sunrise as passing headlights—bakers and farm boys on their way to work—illuminated patches of darkness.

Petrópolis illuminated (photo by: flavia_barbieri)

The rest of the world was asleep…then suddenly awake. Before the turnpike’s on-ramp I passed through an inexplicably lit shopping district. Fashionable, early rising Giovanis, Luis Vuittons, and other illusive gods burned the morning with neon. Women pecked at store front displays; their dedication to spend admirable, in a distorted kind of way. From open doors a falseness exhaled into the mountain air, condensed, then spilled into the gutters where water and mud mixed as oozing rivers of unreality.


[5:50 AM] Straddling the line between electric light and night where the city ended and the highway began, I stared at the peak of a thirty-five kilometer descent and questioned the logic of falling down a mountain, on a wet road, with limited visibility. An overpass was the roof to my house of thought. Favelas and fireman and beaches were secondary to the scabby daydreams that unfolded, me splayed on the shoulder, unconscious, Surly a mangled mess in the ditch, ambulance sounds and tunnel vision arriving like the ghost of Christmas; farther afield, an international phone call, tears, told-you-sos, and unnecessary pain for my loved ones so far away.

No. A wide turn back.

Petrópolis bus station basked in sunlight (photo by: primusengenharia)

I went to the nearby bus station, ordered a coffee and ham-and-cheese pastel, and waited for the sun to shine the way.


[6:40 AM] A slick black line divided by two, then divided again. Four lanes of fun. A wide scar through the mountains. Gravity my master. A torpedo surfacing. Bullets entering water. An ice block sliding down a grassy hill. Moses parting the sea with a jet ski. Joy fueling movement. Freedom inflated to 80 PSI. Controlled danger. Uncontrollable laughter. Hydroplaning on a prayer. Truck driver double-takes. Thumbs-up from Fiat windows. Mammoth angry buses. Lungs emptied into tunnels. Echos screaming. Melting brakes. Slosh, slush, grime kicked up. Speeding tickets unwritten. Laws broken. Unusable high gears. Bridges without shoulders. Pothole paranoia. Cliff canyons and green lushness. Fog. Stubborn clouds. Sun circling for a landing, somewhere not here.


[7:30 AM] Entering the northern outskirts, nature became a distant memory. The rustling palm trees of the morning seemed oceans away; farmhouses were left behind like fallen soldiers. The city was a slow fade of bleak contrasts, bleaching from green to grey, increasing in solidity and sound, concrete and car honks, until organic things (besides mass humanity) were not seen, only smelled: car fumes, rain mixed with gasoline, burnt compost hanging in stagnant air.

A large bog with cattail-like plants paralleled the highway, almost hidden completely by roadside constructions. Its underworld of decomposition emitted a smell similar to rotten eggs and dirt.

Northern Rio de Janeiro (photo by:

Amidst the half-constructed brick buildings, islands of shine where gas station signs stood like massive bug zappers, herds of waiting bus passengers that paid no attention to our passing, and drivers that switched lanes at the slightest hint of brake light red, this stink comforted me, transported me, brought me back to the window-down road trips through southern Florida where eternal mangroves fill the air with the biological aroma of the billion dead.


[8:00 AM] My original concern when entering the city center was thieves dropping from enclaves of lawlessness to steal the few belongings I own. This was naivety at its finest, propagated by the repeated hearsay of those with no first-hand experience with marginalized peoples. In Rio crime exists—the statistics prove it—but it was my central sun of the universe attitude that assumed poor favela kids would be waiting to ambush a soaked and dirty cyclist who, in reality, was no prize compared to the easy bumper-to-bumper prey of commuting BMWs and sheik SUVs.

Favela Rochina (photo by: STAYFLY!)

Strangely disappointing now, I didn’t even see favelas similar to those so famously depicted in movies like City of God. For more than eight kilometers I was much too focused on navigating the narrow alleys of semi, bus, and car on the three lane highway (four if you count the occupied shoulder) that stretched all the way to downtown, moving in blocks of short, intense bursts of 10mph.

For a change, motorcycles and I were the great warriors of the road that swerved in ironic bliss around so much metal and unreleased motor power. In the end, my narrow handlebars and superior maneuverability (even with trailer) won me champion status amongst the two-wheelers. Where motorcycles bottle-necked at the battles of inches between cars, the same near-collisions that cut off key attack points like NFL linemen, Team MB&S’s skinniness coasted past, effortlessly, without hesitation, sometimes with a compassionate bus panel caress, just to make it clear that our victory was nothing personal.


Cristo Redentor (photo from: stevenhartsite)

[8:50 AM] It’s amazing even now, after the sensation of a thousand lives in a year, a hundred perspectives in a month, a dizzying array of landscapes weekly, and a cast of strangers each day, that within hours it’s possible to arrive to strange worlds by simply trading places, to rebirth in new realities by getting up and going, to pass through black mornings and arrive to a sunny life on the other side.

My newest reality was a bike path along the coast, with white sand beaches that marked the end of the line, orange and blue recycle bins, public exercise stations with concrete dumbbells and pull-up bars for all heights, a few joggers with shoes matching their shirts, circular bays divided by rock walls, sailboats bobbing in a calm tide, peninsulas of rounded mountains shrouded in mist, and green signs bordered in white, with names like Copacabana and Ipanema pulling me through my eightieth kilometer. The sun was emerging from behind the clouds.

Rainy arrival to Ipanema Beach

History-rich Rio de Janeiro is another important landmark on this bike tour, just like Caracas, Cusco, and La Paz had been before. From Colombia’s Caribbean coast to Cristo Redentor, the contrasting beauty of the city and my hectic commute reminded me once again that nothing is one thing all the time, that good and bad are just different notches on the spectrum, that anything can change at anytime.

From rain to shine, I’m now all smiles in the Marvelous City by the sea.


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