Monday, June 18, 2007

Cidade Maravilhosa and the Foz!

By Gary Duncan, Assistant Director of Marketing

It is still very dark as we leave our hotel in Belo Horizonte at 4:30 a.m. for our flight to Rio de Janiero. We are nearly at the end of this Study Tour, but the energy level of our CCF sponsors remains high and positive. How could you not be positive when you know you are going to visit one of the most beautiful cities in the world and then fly down to the Brazilian/Argentine border to see a spectacular waterfall that makes Niagara Falls look puny? Our excellent guide in Belo Horizonte had arranged a group check-in at the airport and we were soon going to taking off into the sunrise with high expectations for today’s adventure in the cidade maravilhosa!

Just an hour of flight time and several people in the group have already excitedly spotted the Christ the Redeemer statue as our plane banks to the north for landing at Rio’s international airport. Landing in Rio on a clear morning almost takes your breath away… the mountains, the bays, the beaches, and the sweet Pao de Acucar (Sugarloaf) just waiting to greet us! There is excitement among the CCF sponsors as we claim our luggage and meet Marcelo-- tour guide par excellance! Marcelo grew up poor in the slums of Rio with a single mom who taught him the value of education--he is now working on his PhD and speaks four languages fluently. Marcelo has a wonderful knowledge of Rio, its’ history, local culture, and politics. He has also been the tour guide for every CCF group since the beginning of Study Tours to Brazil about five years ago.

Boarding our large and comfortable bus, Marcelo remarks that there is a lot of luggage and smiles knowingly that the sponsors have been shopping at every stop over the past 10 days. Although CCF does not have an office or projects in Rio, the city serves as an example of urban explosion and all the problems that go with a city experiencing steady growth, high unemployment, and lack of adequate housing. We leave the airport and Marcelo is very candid in explaining the good, the bad, and the ugly of living—and visiting Rio de Janeiro. Most of the news reports in the United States when we hear about Rio’s crime are exaggerated and taken out of the context of life in a big city. Just ask Brazilians about visiting New York City or Miami, they are terrified of what they read and sincerely fear going to those cities.

From the airport, we pass one of the largest slums (favelas) in Rio and notorious for drugs, robberies, and murders. We are soon passing the old colonial part of downtown Rio de Janeiro with its’ beautiful Portuguese-style churches, the opera house and other stunning municipal buildings. Marcelo remarks that we will be having lunch tomorrow at one of the oldest traditional ‘tea rooms’ in Rio called Colombo. After passing the middle-class apartments and condo communities of Flamenco and Botafogo, we pass through a long tunnel taking us to gorgeous Copacabana Beach. The oohs and aahs from the sponsors when they see the beach is typical for anyone on their first visit to this famous beach. Our hotel on Avenida Atlantica is ready for our arrival as well as a large group of street vendors selling everything from jewelry to license plates, they are not pushy, but a lot of fun which is so typical of the Cariocas, which is what Rio residents are called.

Sponsors are asked to proceed immediately to the rooftop pool area where they are given a registration card to complete, served complimentary ‘caipirinhas’, and welcomed to the hotel by members of the management team. Immediately, the sponsors look over the low wall of the rooftop area to get a breathtaking view of the entirety of Copacabana Beach, the Sugarloaf, and a good view of the Christ the Redeemer statue perched on a mountain behind the hotel. It is as if the sponsors have been physically immobilized by some secret mist for they don’t move and continually murmur words of wonderment at what they are viewing. One sponsor jokingly says, “I plan to stay right here on the rooftop for the next three days! You guys can do whatever you want!”

After a quick trip to our rooms, we meet down in the lobby to leave for a beach pizza party, what a relief from all that meat and fish at the traditional churrascaria restaurants on this trip. I have reserved tables for our group at a nearby sidewalk cafĂ© facing the ocean that serves delicious pizza Brazilian-style. The views of the ocean and palm trees seem to hypnotize our sponsors as they ‘chill out’ and realize they are really in Rio de Janeiro and eating lunch at Copacabana Beach. Soon the street vendors spot our group and the show is on! I try to manage the street sellers but our sponsors are eager to buy their wares, it is an open-air Macy’s basement sale! Many of the street vendors are eager to share their stories and I do my best to translate what they want our sponsor group to know. They are a poor, but industrious group of sales people with a great sense of humor, their marketing of their products is done with humor, class, and a splendid show of entertainment for their customers. Aiiii, how Carioca and Brazilian is this display, and the sponsors love it.

The afternoon soon arrives and we are off to Sugarloaf Mountain for some awe-inspiring views of the city, rivers, bays, mountains, and then back to the hotel to prepare for our short trip to an excellent restaurant in the Leme section of Copacabana. Marius Restaurant is a happening circus, a bonanza of mirth and laughter, a wonderful place to relax on your first night in Rio. We recognize all of our sponsors for their sponsorship of needy children, but give special recognition and a small gift to four sponsors who have been sponsoring children throughout the world for over 25 years! We also recognize sponsors who sponsor more than one child, including one gentleman from Minnesota who sponsors 17 children! CCF is blessed to have such a loyal base of sponsors who are truly part of our international family! We finish dessert and then back to the hotel-- well, not everyone. There is a great little street market on a section of Copacabana Beach which a group of us must explore. It is a 16 block walk back to the hotel late that night, but no one seems to mind given the beautiful moon over the ocean, the cool breezes through the beachfront palms, and the atmosphere of joviality that integrates the rhythm of this cidade maravilhosa. Boa noite or sweet dreams dear sponsors…..and welcome to Rio de Janeiro!

It is our second day in Rio, and everyone is already for breakfast and eager to leave for our visit to the Christ the Redeemer statue or Corcovado. It stands on a very high peak in the middle of the largest urban rain forest in the world called Tijuca. We have arranged for our CCF sponsors to go on a safari adventure this morning, so there are six open-air Jeep type vehicles waiting for our group. They will transport us through the city until we reach the cog-wheel railway station in the northern part of the Botafogo neighborhood. It is indeed strange to ride around Rio in these safari vehicles and watch the reaction of Cariocas on their way to work when they see us --how strange this group must appear to the residents of this city, but the Cariocas smile and some wave a cheerful good morning to us. So Brazilian!

We arrive at the little train station and immediately see groups of other tourists standing in line for the next trip up the mountain… there are Italians, French, Germans, Brazilians, and some folks from the USA all waiting to climb up the mountain side through Tijuca National Forest until we reach the majestic Christ statue at the top. As we wait, some of our CCF sponsors are off to buy souvenirs and take photos of the surroundings. Soon, we board our little train and start up the mountainside through the forest where little signs note the types of trees and plants we are passing. There are two stops as we go up the mountain to let locals on and off the train, at the first stop, a quintet of samba school players get on the train to play and sing for the tourists. It is a scene out of a Fellini movie as we steeply climb the mountain on a little cog-wheel train while joyful samba music is playing and several people are dancing in the aisle of our bonde car.

As we approach the top of the mountain, there is a sudden break in the thick forest and a giant gush of oohs and aahs is heard from the passengers as they catch a glimpse of the beautiful scene several thousand feet below -- Ipanema, Copacabana, and Lagoa. There is not a cloud in the sky on this beautiful day. From the last stop, we either walk up over 700 steps or take an elevator to the base of the statue. From the top of the mountain, the view is unbelievable; it is no wonder people do not want to leave this almost sacred place of beauty. As one sponsor remarked, “this is almost a spiritual experience for me.” No one could deny the peacefulness and exhilaration of seeing Rio de Janeiro from the base of the Christ statue.

We descend the mountain by bonde train until the first stop and then hopped back into our safari vehicles for an exciting ride down the winding road that goes down the mountain through Tijuca Forest to a section of the city called Santa Teresa --which has become an artist colony and place to live for the noveau rich in Rio. We have the afternoon free until dinner at a great little restaurant called ‘Mio’ in Ipanema. CCF sponsor Steve from California is crowned King of Cheesebread and given a Rio fake license plate that reads ‘Sr. Pao de Queijo’. Back to the night market at Copacabana Beach tonight before returning to the hotel for some last minute packing of luggage for the flight to Foz de Iguassu in the morning.

We are flying south to the border of Brazil and Argentina this morning to spend a few days at one of the largest waterfalls in the world, the Foz de Iguasu or Big Water in the native language of indigenous people who still live in the area. It has been almost 30 years since I last visited the Foz and I remember Iguasu being this small town with no paved streets and you had to pay a fisherman to row you across the river to the Argentine side of the waterfalls. No more! The Foz de Iguasu region is a giant international tourism destination with modern facilities on both sides of the border and a booming eco-tourism business. Our group is staying at the historic Cataratas Hotel which faces a portion of the falls on the Brazilian side. During the next two days, we hike around the falls, walk gingerly along catwalks over a portion of the falls, and take a really fun boat trip to the base of one of the falls, yes, we all were drenched but laughing the entire time. It is really good to see Brazil and Argentina develop a healthy industry of eco-tourism that protects the sub-tropical forests, assures the integrity of the falls, and gives employment to so many local people.

You always know when a study tour is almost completed (besides being tired and sometimes a little cranky.) The sponsors showed an emotional display of complete satisfaction with what they have experienced on the study tour and a little sadness that it is all ending within 24 hours, we have to say our goodbyes and return to our home communities. The bonds of friendship formed during a study tour is indicative of a group that has come to Brazil for a common mission, to learn more about Christian Children’s Fund, to visit CCF projects and sponsored children, and to learn more of the history, culture, music and arts of this vast country called Brazil.

As we wait for our flight connection in Sao Paulo, Brazil, international airport, to get to Miami, I see sponsors talking quietly to one another, laughing at some of their digital photos, and making plans to return to Brazil on a future study tour. They will return to the States more bonded with the mission of CCF and eager to recruit new sponsors in their community. Many of them will raise funds from their churches, business associates or civic groups to fund needed projects in Brazil or perhaps a project they visited during this Study Tour. I look forward to receiving copies of their favorite photos from this trip and perhaps visiting with them this year as I travel throughout the United States. Emails, phone calls, and letters will be exchanged for many years to come. Most of all, we have shared a common experience throughout this trip to Brazil that none of us will forget. We have gained so much knowledge of Brazil and its people.

I will miss this group of unique individuals! CCF is fortunate to have them as sponsors and loyal supporters helping needy children throughout the world. I hope to see them again in the near future on other study tour trips! We will continue our CCF Study Tours this year with a trip to Ecuador in July (sorry sold out!) and a fantastic study tour to India in late October. Next year, we will be going to Zambia, Bolivia, Brazil, and maybe even Thailand. There will be more countries announced later this summer!

Thank you to the sponsors and fellow travelers on this Brazil Study Tour. I will never forget you! gary d.

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