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exploring Rio

Brazilian beat

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RIO REVELRY: Perfect bikini bodies are something of a given in Rio though perhaps a more famous sight is the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Caipirinha is the drink to try

All big cities have a defining feature. New York is fastpaced, so much so that it's given birth to the phrase 'the New York minute'. Mumbai has its sounds and smells, and London its nagging drizzle. In Rio de Janeiro, as you stroll on white-sand beaches and sip coffee in cafes and watch the hills jammed with lights, you feel a rhythm - a beat everything is moving to. Everyone - a lad riding the angry waves on a surfing board, a girl in bikini jogging at Copacabana, a singer riffing his guitar in a beer kiosk and an urchin caressing a football with his feet - seems to be performing to a beat outsiders can't hear. It seems an invisible singer is constantly playing a bossa nova number to the people going about their lives here.

It wasn't my first time in the city, but exploring Rio is always an experience. Every time you walk around the city, it shares new secrets. This time I have a companion - Ruy Castro's Rio de Janeiro: Carnival under Fire, a 2003 book on cidade maravilhosa - the marvellous city, as Rio residents call it. Nobody, they say, writes about Rio with such passion as Castro, a journalist who is equally at home with history, music or football. Having read the book a couple of times, I want to explore Rio with Castro - just to enjoy it more, or maybe just to see if he got something wrong.

As our jumbo turns and twists over the city, waiting to land at Santos-Dumont airport, the plane skims over the blue waters of Guanabara bay in the middle of which stand rocky hills covered with green foliage. Just before touchdown, we see the city icon Sugar Loaf, hemmed in by sandy beaches dotted with red and yellow umbrellas and people with bronzed skin. It's prettier than a postcard, and has been this captivating since 1502, when the first Portuguese flotilla led by Amerigo Vespucci sailed into the bay. In Castro's imagination, the 500-year-old scene comes alive: "When Vespucci faced the Sugar Loaf, he saw in Guanabara something like the idea the ancients had of paradise: a riotous display of hills and mountains ranges, beaches, inlets, islands, dunes, sandbanks, mangrove swamps, lagoons and forests, all this under an endless blue sky..." The scene hasn't changed much in five centuries.

After they dropped anchor in the bay, says Castro, the Portuguese began to walk around and found that the place was like the Garden of Eden inhabited by a native tribe of "men and women who spent all their time singing and dancing in the sun, everybody naked, cheerfully, fornicating in the woods and on the sand, sleeping in hammocks by moonlight or in romantic straw huts, and surrounded by abundance of fruit, birds, and fish, all within reach - you don't have to plant, just pluck, as long as you lived..."

But they didn't live too long. As the new colonisers began to ravage the land for its treasures, the natives got swallowed up by their greed. But their free spirit still lives on in this city where villages with their tiny huts have given way to swanky mansions, tall high-rises and match-box favelas in which live some 6 million people who call themselves Cariocas.

The Cariocas smile by default. As I begin my journey with Castro, the city is just recovering from the Rio+20 conference. More than 50, 000 guests - world leaders, experts, greens and freaks - have just left the city, leaving behind heaps of garbage and graffiti on the walls. But the Cariocas are not complaining as they spruce up their streets and sweep the beaches. For them, it's time to reclaim the city and get its rhythm back.

No matter which part of the city you live in - Zona Sul, the upper-crust southern zone, or Rocinina, South America's biggest slum, everybody here goes to the beach. Everybody has a beach. It's the most democratic space here. On a beach in Rio - Copacabana, Ipanema or Flamengo - you can see every possible skin tone and every possible shape of eyes that exist in the world. Take a chair, grab a beer and observe people on a beach and time flies. All kinds of activities - from sun tanning to drinking to playing a hybrid of football and volleyball known as futevolei to marathon kissing sessions - happen here. Without its golden beaches, Rio wouldn't attract people from all over the world. "An advertisement about Rio published in a newspaper some time ago said: 'Come and live in the city where you'd like to spend your holidays. ' In the photo, spread across a double page of the papers and magazines, there was a heart-stopping vision of the beaches at sunrise, " writes Castro. "In Rio, people just go the beach, like going to the cinema, the shops or the bank - because it's there, 24 hours a day, all year round, and with an entire city round it, all its services fully available. It's a whole culture..."

But Rio is more than just beaches. So I decide to visit the city landmarks of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf. It's a sunny, wintry day and we take the cog railway to the Corcovado at the top of which stands Christ the Redeemer or Christo as it's called by Cariocas. Made up of soapstone, the 10-storey high statue watches over the city like a guardian angel. After dusk, it glows in a different light every night. Every corner of the city - jungles, streets, mountains floating in the deep ocean - is visible from here. The scenery just takes your breath away. And then we notice the narrow mouth of the Guanabara bay. It's so narrow, writes Castro, that Vespucci mistook it for a river mouth and named the place Rio de Janeiro (the January River, as it was first day of the year when he arrived here).

After a trek down the Corcovado, we drive to Sugar Loaf or Paon de Acucar, a native name for two hills that stand glued to each other. A cable car takes us to the first hill, where tiny monkeys dangle from green trees. Another cable ride and we're on the second, higher hill, from where we get the other view of the bay as was seen by the first Europeans. We also notice that the whole city is actually like a rim around a national park - Parque Nacioanl de Tijuca, the biggest urban forest in the world, and that beaches outlining the city's coast with the South Atlantic run for miles (55 miles to be precise, writes Castro). Along the beaches are botequims or street bars, where you can sample the local drink Caipirinha, a cocktail of lime, sugar, ice and cacha?a, with crispy tuna and black bean stew served with rice. And at every street corner stand juice stalls, serving fruits like caqui (persimmon) and graviola (soursop).

But Rio's real life is in the streets that cut each other at right angles, creating a maze of posh neighbourhoods in front of the golden beaches. There is a never a dull moment here. At Copacabana, you may bump into writer Paulo Coelho who, according to Castro, "hasn't given up his habit of strolling along the wide pavement parallel to the sea. " At Ipanema's Veloso bar, you may find Vinicius de Moraes' voice floating over a swirling crowd. The girl from Ipanema, composed by Carlos Jobim and Moraes in this bar, is Rio's anthem. And in one of these bars, you may get to taste 'Samba in Berlin' - cachaca with Coke, a drink invented by Osron Welles here in 1942. Welles, writes Castro, came here to make a film, but forgot to leave, as did Janis Joplin in the 1970s.
Rio grows on you quickly. Here, days are magical and nights intoxicating. After the sun dips into the sea, the beaches go quiet, and the action shifts to other parts of the city. After walking on the cobbled streets of Santa Teresa - the old quarters of Rio known for its French villas and bohemian artists - we arrive in Lapa, where every building is shaking with traditional Brazilian rhythms. As we enter the Rio Scenarium, a samba club where five floors are packed with people and the whole place throbbing with the battery of traditional drums, Castro informs us that Lapa's resurrection as the night-life district is a new thing.

A great place for creative souls in the 1940s and '50s, it got run over by prostitutes and street crooks in the '60s. "For the long years when it was officially dead, it was as if Rio kept an unburied body in the back room - the body of a wild, whoremongering genius of an uncle..., " says Castro. "In the new Lapa, it's quite usual for 5, 000 people, native and tourists, to be jammed into the bars and heaving streets, where samba, choro, forro, funk and others rhythms seem to come at you from all over the place..."

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