RIO DE JANEIRO -- I arrived in Rio at around 7:30 a.m. Wednesday morning, understandably groggy after a 10-hour plane ride from New York City and a stretch of some 27 hours on little sleep. I'm surprised my neck is still intact after falling asleep on the plane in some compromising positions.
Soon after I got off the plane, I was fingerprinted. I'm not sure why. Perhaps they want a record in case I wander off into a slum and get kidnapped. Maybe they want to verify that some of the hyperbole produced on this computer in the next three weeks actually emanated from my fingers. Whatever. I felt strangely cared for.
Soon after, I saw a poster of a young soldier that assured all visitors that the Brazilian army would be out in full force during the Olympics. There are about 80,000 security of various stripes in the city, so it should be relatively safe. Of course, from what I've read (Juliana Barbassa's 'Dancing With the Devil in the City of God" is a troubling and informative resource), the Rio police are mainly skilled at taking out their own citizens in the favelas.
I saw some of those slums on the long bus ride in to the city. It was striking, the level of decay in those areas. Some of the buildings seemed about to collapse in on themselves. There is an astonishing amount of graffiti in the outer edges of the city coming in from the airport. Much of the strife in Brazil has occured in those favelas since Rio won the bid in 2009, and much of the angst about possible trouble here results from a sense that the gangs could cause grief for outsiders.
But I'm already weary of talking about Rio's problems. In any major American city, you could witness the same conditions in ghettos and anguish about crime and poverty. I mean, Chicago was up for these Games. What do you think people from other countries would be saying if they were ready to descend on an American city with the sort of gun violence that is endemic to our "Second City?" And the people of Flint, Michigan, could tell you a bit about dirty and poisoned water.
I don't mean to downplay Rio's issues, which are countless and profound. But this is still one of the world's great cities and I don't imagine I'll ever get back here. While staying wary of the possible catastrophes, I'm going to enjoy it as much as I can. As the golfer Walter Hagen said of life, "You're only on a short trip, remember to stop and smell the roses."
I took a little tour of the downtown area where I'm staying and had a nice time before tiring out. I should point out that on one of the main thoroughfares, workers were feverishly working on an above-ground train line, evidently trying to get done in time for the Ceremonies. They're struggling in that area and I have concerns about Friday's opening and some of the venues for events.
But this is an amazing place, a city of extremes, as it's been called. You see old Italianate buildings alongside more modern structures. Some of the architecture is breathtaking. The theater building is magnificent.
Taking a tip from one of the younger concierges at the hotel, we visited Confeiteria Colombo, one of the most famous places in the city. It's a pastry shop, but that's like calling Big Ben a clock. It was opened in 1894, inspired by the great tearooms of Europe. It features stunning Art Noveau architecture, a stained glass ceiling and mirrors on all the walls. It has had many famous visitors, including the Queen of England in 1920. I had cappuccino and pastry and bought a big refrigerator magnet.
I also had my first alcoholic drink (at a tad before noon, but rules are flexible at the Games) at an old cafe that was frequented by poets and writers in the early days of the Republic. There's a picture of them on the wall. I had a capirinha, which is the the most common distilled alcoholic drink of Brazil. It's made with cachaca (sugarcane liquor), sliced limes and sugar. It hit the spot. They say it's often used to cure the common cold.
It did a good job of putting me to sleep. Tomorrow, I check out the Main Press Center. Hoping for reliable transportation.