Finding Jesus: A Test of Faith in Rio de Janeiro

by Wills Weird World
December 9, 2021 | 8 min read

Finding Jesus: A Test of Faith in Rio de Janeiro

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 and glum…

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 then cloud.

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,’ he warned.

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 seeing Christ.

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 all.

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 towards the 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.

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My name's Will and I've turned my passion for travel and writing into a blog, to share my experiences of our weird and wonderful world.

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