As our Uber weaved its way through the busy streets of Rio de Janeiro, the signs of the recent Olympic Games were littered everywhere. Although the banners had been taken down a month prior, logos announcing “Rio 2016” were still stamped across roads; huge signs strung across souvenir shops boasted their Games-themed merchandise; freshly-painted murals covered building walls. Along one line of storefronts, a series of circus-style paintings illustrated the Games—Athens, Beijing, London, Rio and, finally, Tokyo.
After five years of preparation and over 500,000 visitors, you’d think the city would be ready for a break. But the citizens of Rio are used to the spotlight, and it seems like they barely have time to take a breath before plunging into their next world spectacle: the annual Carnival. Although my family and I were visiting over two full months before the celebration (which will be occurring on February 24th), an expectant buzz of energy could be felt all over the city. The metropolis was in the process of shedding its skin, discarding its athletic shorts and tank tops for glittering ball gowns and gravity-defying headdresses. And, although the city had been recently in the news for hosting the world’s most popular sporting event, it’s clear that the heart of Rio lies in its art.
When my family first started planning its trip to Brazil, I was naturally excited for such bucket list-worthy snapshots as Copacabana, Christ the Redeemer, and Sugarloaf Mountain. What I didn’t plan for was everything else. When traveling, it’s so easy to get caught up in the big-ticket landmarks. But the most amazing parts of a city, the parts that really give it life, more often than not can’t be found on any postcards.
That being said, one of my favorite experiences in the city had to be seeing a samba show at a small local theater called Plataforma. While Carnival only happens once a year, these performances happen year-round and are an important part of Rio’s culture. The music was exhilarating and rhythmic, the percussionists never seeming to tire (also, there was this thing). The costumes flashed in front of us like dreams. From short tutus to blue-green neon tuxes to sparkling angel wings and dresses that looked like they were made out of starlight, we saw everything. No doubt you’ll know what I mean if you’ve ever seen a picture from Carnival (or Disney’s children’s movie Rio).
The theater was small enough that after the show we had a chance to meet and talk to the performers. Although our Portuguese was admittedly lacking, we learned from them that the cast consisted of people of all ages and walks—students and mothers and fathers and grandparents and businessmen. They all donned sparkling attires with pride and smiled widely when we asked them about their performance.
Perhaps you’ve seen Michael Jackson’s controversial music video for “They Don’t Care About Us.” The video was filmed in Santa Marta, one of Rio’s countless favelas—little villages clinging onto the mountains surrounding Rio. At the time, Santa Marta was steeped in poverty and crime, much like the rest of the favelas. But, using its new-found fame, Rio invested in improving its favelas, driving out gangs and drug dealers. In the mid 2000s, a group began using donations and volunteers to paint the dusty, mud-colored favelas with bright, rainbow murals. Although my family did not have a chance to visit Santa Marta, the favela is now a safe and beautiful place to visit, and celebrates its iconic past with a life-sized statue of the King of Pop himself.
Finally, perhaps the most beautiful sight in all of Rio was not planned by the city at all: the Selaron Steps. A Chilean artist by the name of Selaron began decorating a simple staircase between two rows of building with tiles in 1990. The design started simple—blue, green, and yellow tiles to represent the Brazilian flag. But, as the years passed, the staircase grew slowly more colorful, adopting reds and oranges. Selaron collected tiles from crushed pottery and famous artists and traveled the world to bring tiny tokens from every nation to build into the wall. On our last day in the city, our tour guide led my family around the staircase, pointing out a tile from Ohio (my home state), New York and even one from Hungary, where my family is from.
After succumbing to a round of pictures with my parents, I walked along the wall slowly, running my fingers over tiles of all different shapes and sizes from all corners of the world. There was no method to the madness, it seemed. Tiles had been added as they came, sometimes grouped by color to paint vibrant swirls and shapes that danced up and down the long staircase. There were tiles stamped with Mickey Mouse and Madonna and the American flag. A small girl pointed excitedly to a picture of her favorite princess along one of the walls. There were tiles from Asia and from Australia and from Africa, and tiles from countries I’d never even heard of. Every tiny piece was a story in its own right, and, as I sat there, I thought about how sometimes the most important things are the things right in front of our very eyes. You can buy a million postcards or stand at the peak of the mountain at Christ the Redeemer’s feet for days looking at the city and never grasp the heart of the place. But sitting on that dusty staircase under the sweltering Brazilian sun—that made sense.