The exotic Brazilian metropolis of
Rio is famed for its white sand beaches and dramatic mountain peaks. But only a
mile from the coast is one of the most dangerous neighbourhoods on the
continent. When Christ the Redeemer disappears, Will McGuire determines whether
this really is a God-forsaken city.
The guide books warned that Rio could
be perilous at night. Muggings and violence towards tourists was all too
common. Arriving late after a long flight from Amsterdam, our Uber driver
approached the neighbourhood of our hostel with trepidation. Before coming to a
complete stop he used the translation app on his phone to warn us that the area
was not safe. He pulled up to a thin, gated building with no sign or indication
that it was a hostel. A homeless man rifled through a bin bag out the front.
The driver helped unload our bags onto the pavement, but before we could even
thank him, he had sped off.
In the eerie quiet, Jen and I stood,
overburdened with luggage. We were alone save the single, homeless trash-bag
inspector. The lack of signage on the building concerned me. If the address was
wrong, we were in trouble. It was almost midnight, and we would be stuck in a
dodgy area with no data on our phones. I beat frantically on the gate and was
delighted when a door opened to the smiling face of a hostel volunteer.
Rio is the most visited city in Brazil and beloved for its glorious beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema that stretch for miles with soft white sand, perfect for sunbathing with an ice cold caipirinha or playing a game of volleyball. The hilltops of Sugarloaf Mountain and Corcovado offer spectacular views. On a sunny day Rio looks like a city built on paradise itself.
But during our visit, it was overcast
Nevertheless, there were still sights
that needed to be seen. Christ the Redeemer, a new Wonder of the World, was top
of the bucket list for my whole South America trip, and so we persisted to the
base of Corcovado. From there a train takes tourists to the top of the mountain,
where Christ is waiting for them, arms outstretched. But there was bad news.
The cloud that had turned the sky so grey was sitting low and covering him
completely. A staff member directed me to a monitor with a live feed of the
figure. There was just a grey blur. ‘Zero visibility’ she added, as if it
wasn’t obvious already. She showed me how to follow the live feed online. I
also checked the forecast for the rest of the week promised cloud, cloud and
It was official – Christ had left the
building. Why hast thou forsaken me?
With our plan for the day dashed and
the beaches cold and empty, we turned to less conventional interests. Only a
mile inland from the glitz and glamour of Ipanema, are huge slums or ‘favelas’.
These include Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil, and City of God, now
infamous from the film of the same name. Both are no-go areas for independent
travellers. So we found a tour guide who would take us through.
The minivan dropped us off at the
highest point in Rocinha and met us back down at the bottom. Our guide looked
the spitting image of the pop singer, Usher. He explained the rules we had to
follow in order to pass through safety. ‘Rule number 1: don’t slip on dog shit.
Rule number 2: if someone is coming through, get out of their way. And most
important, rule number 3: if we see any gangsters – do not take their photo!’
We all looked very serious and disapproving of criminals, but secretly all
hoped to catch a glimpse of one!
Usher led us through a twisting maze
of alleyways. The walls were plastered with graffiti and tangled webs of power
lines draped overhead. Rubbish littered the path and accumulated into towering
mounds by the side or in the gutters below. The cement steps were coated in
grime and mess. I hopped and dodged while checking my phone for the live feed
of Christ (still absent).
We were directed up an awkward set of
stairs which gave access into the side of a house. Out on the balcony was an
incredible view across the valley and the entire favela. With 100,000 living in
Rocinha alone, the slums were cities within a city.
Continuing our descent, Usher shouted
‘No photo, no photo!’ I put my live feed away as three muscular young men came
up, each armed with machine guns. They wore caps, singlets and had metal teeth,
smirking as they saw us. The group fell into a panic-stricken silence. One thug
pursed his lips at Jen and made a comment that had the others cackling. How
safe was this tour, really?
Unwilling to take my chances snapping
shots of the armed gangsters, I instead concentrated on photographing the
street art, and always fell to the back of the group. I turned to capture some
work on the wall behind me and a bare-chested local staggered out, clutching a
beer bottle. ‘THANK YOU! THANK YOU!’ He shouted. It must have been the only
English he knew. He clawed at my shoulder and stunk of piss. As I shrugged him
off, Usher appeared to help me walk away. ‘Only take photos looking forward,’
The drug possession and distribution
was committed without any concern for discretion. Usher called again not to
take photos as we walked past gang members smoking huge joints and even as one
tied up bags of heroin while an armed guard stood nearby. The gangs rule this
territory even after police and military have attempted intervention. It seems
almost obscene that a city that prides itself on its Catholicism has huge areas
of lawlessness. Did Christ finally have enough? Is this why he left? I double
checked my live feed to be sure he still had.
With the tour over, I anxiously
awaited Christ’s return like it was the Second Coming. Every hour I checked the
live feed and every time it was the same depressing grey blur. I soldiered on
through the week, visiting the Selaron Stairs, the street art in Lapa, and the
beaches, all under a dull sky and the gloomy resignation that I would miss
The thought of coming all the way to
South America and missing a wonder of the world was too much to bear.
On my last morning I jolted awake
every hour to examine my live feed. At 7am I had to rub my eyes in disbelief.
There, in the little viewer, was the silhouette of a man. Hallelujah! Christ
had returned! I would have got immediately into a taxi except I had paid for a
breakfast in advance and so we had to eat it. We are still backpackers after
We arrived to the base of Corcovado
to a crowd of like-minded individuals, all clambering to get up the mountain.
The first train had sold out and the next train wasn’t for another hour. My
ticket read 10:20am “no visibility”. I was in a panic as I ran to the monitor
and watched in horror as cloud crept
statue and began to engulf him. My brief window of opportunity had slammed
shut. Damn my frugal nature and insatiable appetite for breakfast!
I sulked the entire train ride up the
mountain. After disembarking we followed the white staircase to the base of the
statue. I held my breath, praying against all odds that he was there, but the
cloud cover was so dense I could not even see his feet. The platform was thick
with tourists milling around, unsure. They were all hoping to take a photo of
their arms outstretched to mimic Christ, but without him in the shot, it was
just embarrassing. I’d come so far to see him and even giving myself a week in
Rio, it was not enough. All hope was lost.
But then, in my darkest hour, was a moment of divine intervention. The chiseled jaw of Jesus Christ appeared to me.
It was an early Christmas miracle!
The eyes on his floating head locked with mine and he spoke to me.
‘I am here.’ he whispered. ‘Blessed
are the tourists. And the people of this city. Rich and poor. They are all my
children. Now go forth young William, and cross me off your bucket list.’
‘Amen to that, JC!’ I cheered, before
a fresh band of cloud swallowed him back up.