The boys from Brazil (were really rather sweet)

Jeremy Atiyah went looking for trouble in big bad Rio - but, from the run-down favelas to a fearsome football match, he was shown nothing but respect
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The Independent Travel
"Passengers for the marvellous city please embark now," came the announcement in Portuguese. La cidade maravilhosa. This was the Rio hype - before I was even out of Heathrow.

But apart from being a fun place to fly down to, what was Rio all about? From what I could see, it was not a promising mix. Take one large crowded city - say Barcelona with a dash of Manhattan. Give it a flourishin g economy, public services, football, samba and glamorous beaches covered in bare buttocks. Then grab four million hungry people and dump them in favelas (shanty towns) on the perimeter. You will have cooked a city like Rio.

I had images of plundering street- children, rampaging down from the favelas , while teeming masses of bitter latinos looked on in pleasure as the gringo suffered in the heat. Weren't cities like this just too evil for straight tourism?

In fact, on my first glimpse of the city, around the Lagoa area, I was surprised to see so many American tourists - until these turned out to be locals, jogging round the lagoon with ponytails swinging behind baseball caps. Cyclists kitted out with ear-phones cruised the broad cycle lanes; a wrinkled old couple in bathing costumes strolled the pavement.

I was heading for the south of the city, where sunny Copacabana blended into exclusive Ipanema. But outside banal pop songs, all I knew of these places was their reputation for thievery and drug-related shootings. "Agh, I'm 90 per cent sure you won't get hurt," said my taxi driver dismissively. So I had a 10 per cent chance of being mugged?

So I hoped. In fact, inland from the beach, Copacabana was cheerfully packed with block after block of residential high-rises and shopping streets, a Latin Hong Kong jamming the tiny space between the beach and the solid rock cliffs.

Despite the stale wet smell of thousands of air-conditioners dripping into the street, the weather wasn't even hot. At this time of year there was a suggestion of autumn, with fresh dewy mornings and trees shedding leaves on the pavements.

Beachwear drifted in from the beach. I saw a woman at a bus stop wearing a top that comprised two circles of cloth pasted over her nipples. As for the huge wide open beach of Copacabana itself - there is no nonsense here about sloping off on your own with a towel. In addition to the cult of the buttock, on a Sunday morning all of life was on display.

While gesticulating men in swimming costumes used the beach telephones, local schoolgirls were engaged in a sandy football tournament, diving in the box and rolling around in pain whenever they were touched. A crowd of stocky young Juninhos sat earnestly on the sand sucking on straws from green coconuts.

That was Copacabana. Around the corner in Ipanema, where locals and tourists merge into one homogenously healthy mass, the tone was more like St Tropez. I was told that Ipanema apartment blocks have pistol-toting security guards to keep ruffians at bay. At night there were busy, expensive outdoor restaurants on the sidewalks serving up gigantic steaks to beautiful people.

It's when you turn into an empty street and notice the tell-tale chaotic lighting of a favela crawling up a dark hillside that you're glad you aren't wearing your Rolex. Not that I would have been afraid. The only people to bother me were two kids who dropped a splodge of glue on my shoe then offered to wipe it off. I was almost tempted to hand over my wallet on compassionate grounds.

In Rio, the districts are separated by mountains so sheer and sudden that only this century have they been connected by tunnels. From offshore, forested hills decorate Rio like a Chinese water-colour.

One of the most famous of Rio's hills is Sugarloaf Mountain, whose smooth dome looks like a cross between papal headwear and a vertical blue whale. You can climb up for views over Rio's weird mountain topography if you don't mind riding the same cable car where Jaws bit the cable in the Bond film Moonraker.

Personally I wanted something more evil than Jaws. In search of Rio's darker side, I took a tour of a favela one morning myself, at Rocinha, the largest and oldest of them all. Not wishing to be mistaken for a CIA drugs investigator, I contracted a well-known local guide called Fernando for the occasion.

Fernando kept telling me how the people of the favelas were actually the best-behaved people in Rio. "They are good, religious, family-oriented people," he barked, in a strong American accent. "If anyone robs a tourist in here, that'll bring the cops in, and if the cops come in that'll stop people buying drugs. If you cause that to happen, hell. You'll be killed."

The favela's markets are dominated by the outlandish atmosphere of north- eastern Brazil. Men in funny trilbies sit strumming melancholy guitars while youngsters stand in doorways drinking cachasa (sugar- cane alcohol). Fernando and I ate huge portions of rice and beans in an alley before setting out to explore.

Architecturally, the favela is what you would expect if hundreds of thousands of people were told to build their own homes on a mountainside very quickly. Tiny cement paths of mediaeval dimensions lead up impossibly steep slopes between overhanging buildings of scruffy breezeblocks, while odd terraces project at crazy angles.

Evil it is not though. For the record, it's clean and has fantastic views of jungle, rock and blue sea far below. In fact, it's almost nice. The inhabitants of the favela are friendly, normal, well-dressed people. Even numbered regular buses come up here from town now. Perhaps one day the rest of the city will blend into this area and nobody will know the difference.

On that hopeful note I set off back into town, looking for trouble. How about a football match at the Maracana Stadium between local teams Flamengo and Botofogo?

That evening I set out in search of football thrills. The way to the stadium was promisingly seedy. The town bus passed peeling baroque mansions, crowded squares, and dark avenues paraded by prostitutes baring their breasts.

Arriving at nightfall I saw mounted police surrounded by smoke from grilling meat. The Maracana is one of those legendary South American stadia where they throw bombs and shoot the referees. It is also the largest football stadium in the world, where 200,000 South Americans saw Brazil lose to Uruguay in the World Cup final of 1950.

The atmosphere this evening seemed surprisingly tame though. Some girls in boob-tubes looked as if they had just escaped from Copacabana Beach. I latched on to the hardest man I could find - a cross between Vinnie Jones and Ian Wright - who indicated that he would escort me into the stadium.

It was not to be. Vinnie promptly bumped into some large friends. He turned apologetically. "I'm sorry," he began. "You won't be able to come with us. Otherwise these gentlemen will have to beat you up. You are wearing Flamengo colours".

In my incriminatory red T-shirt and black jeans I decided to head for the Flamengo end. Alone, I broke through the police cordon and marched up an endless concrete walkway to the sky, into the Maracana's hollow sub-skeleton which stank of piss. Animal-like noises screeched around me in the dark. I felt scared.

It was misplaced fear. The football itself was of abominable quality but diversion was provided by the loud firecrackers and the constant police chases through the terraces (in pursuit of illegal drink-sellers).

I was politely ignored.

The next day, my last, desperate for some villainy, I headed downtown on local buses in search of urban hell. Bleak, windswept squares, with bonfires burning on street corners and kids running between the shadows? All I saw was a bus full of 12-year-old boys snogging 11-year-old girls.

Central Rio turned out to be a delight. The main square, Praca Floriano, was full of pavement restaurants and people in sharp suits rushing between offices. Baroque churches and pompous, Parisian-style theatres swaggered beside 1960s skycrapers. Round the corner, the bizarre Catedral Metropolitana, shaped like a Turkish fez, has been built in the form of some Indian temple to the sun.

I took the ancient tram up the hill to the bohemian quarter of Santa Teresa. One creaky carriage, nearly 100 years old, still does the run over the white viaduct that arches through the crumbling rooves of Largo de Lapa. Angelic favela boys hung on to the outside of the train, eyeing my pockets as they swung between lamp-posts. None of them mugged me.

FACT FILE

Flights

A return flight on British Airways (Reservations: 0345 222111) from London Gatwick to Rio de Janeiro currently costs pounds 539 plus tax, if booked by the end of May for departures before end of June.

Packages

A week's package to Rio with Journey Latin America (0181 7478315), including return BA flights, six nights in a three- star hotel in Copacabana and some excursions, costs from pounds 818. JLA also run extended escorted tours of Brazil, incorporating Rio.

Tours

Favela tours, lasting half a day, can be arranged through any hotel for about US$50 (regardless of numbers). Football tours, on match days, are also available.

Visas

Visas are not required by British citizens.

Reading

The Lonely Planet guide to Brazil (pounds 11.95); the Rough Guide to Brazil (pounds 9.99; next edition currently in preparation).

The author travelled as a guest of Journey Latin America and British Airways.

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