Simon Calder: A New Romantic rendezvous in Rio de Janeiro
Saturday 13 December 2008
Travelling in South America comprises a grand tour through improbability. Uncertainty can beset the traveller immediately on arrival: forget the usual red channel/green channel arrangements, because in some countries it is usual at Customs to assess whether inbound passengers have something to declare on an entirely arbitrary basis.
An official invites you to press a big button that randomly operates one of two lights. If it is green, you stroll blithely through; red means you may be some time. I first encountered this at Bogota, one of many South American countries that has become far safer and more welcoming in recent years (even if the standard of English has not; the airport taxi pre-payment voucher reads "Dear User, before abandoning the vehicle we recommend not to forget its baggage and elements of hand").
Arriving at Sao Paulo in Brazil on a delayed flight from London to research 48 Hours in Rio de Janeiro (see pages 10 and 11), I took an hour to get through passport and customs checks. Since the boarding pass for my connection to Rio said "0825" in big numbers, I assumed that was the departure time. I rushed through a barrage of bureaucracy to get to the plane, only to discover that 8.25am was the official boarding time, and the flight was actually scheduled for 9.30am – or, as it turned out because of "operational difficulties", 10.30am. Arriving an hour late in Rio, I then had to queue up again for an hour for passports and customs – like flying to Heathrow, going through all the formalities, boarding a domestic flight to Manchester and getting tangled in all the same red tape.
But the Cidade Maravilhosa, the marvellous city of Rio, has some advantages over Manchester, such as crumpled terrain, drenched in rainforest, that crowds down on to beautiful beaches. Oh, and it has a tropical climate, of course.
The flying time from Rio to Sao Paulo is around 50 minutes, compared with all day on the bus; furthermore, intense competition among airlines linking Brazil's two biggest cities means fares are more reasonable. I paid £60 for a hop between the two.
For the flight to Sao Paulo, I reached Rio's international airport at 5.30am, in good time for my 6.40am flight, only to find that the schedule had changed, without me being told. The flight was now departing in a quarter of an hour and, no, I wasn't getting on it.
"You can take a flight to a different airport that's quite near," suggested the helpful check-in agent.
So I did. South America often leads you to places you were not expecting to be, but the attitude seems to be, "it'll work out fine in the end". And it usually does, as I found out when I returned to Rio after my stay in Sao Paulo.
I walked out of the arrivals hall to find a crowd of people chanting "Simon! Simon!". They turned out not to be readers of The Independent Traveller, but were "Durannies" – music fans out in force to welcome Simon Le Bon and the rest of Duran Duran, who were playing in Rio.
Sensing an opportunity to hear a rock star's view of travel, I grabbed my audio recorder and asked a couple of banal questions. "Good flight?" was about as profound as it got; Simon Le Bon sensibly got on with signing autographs while we talked. At the end of this Paxman-esque grilling, he turned to me and said cheerfully, "I watch you on telly. Do you want to come and see us? I'll put your name on the door." And he did.
Later that same evening, at Vivo Rio, the city's leading rock venue, I was impressed by several things: the sheer energy that these pop legends put into their performance; the fact that also on the guest list was the UK's Consul General in Rio; and the remarkable facility Brazilian fans seem to have for memorising obscure Eighties pop lyrics in English. "Save a Prayer" is worth savouring when being chanted by a crowd more used to speaking Portuguese.
A while ago, I saw Ray Davies of the Kinks perform "Waterloo Sunset" at the South Bank Centre in Waterloo. Having seen Duran Duran play their greatest hit, "Rio", as the climax of a triumphant gig in Rio, I wonder which geo-musical phenomenon I should try to catch next? Answers on a email – or musical score.
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