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My Trip to Rio

by Justin Locke

Justin Locke grew up on a farm in Ohio, then at age 20 he magically "got the call" and found himself playing bass in the Boston Pops. In his books and presentations he shares a remarkable journey of personal and artistic discovery. Check out his laugh-out-loud Boston Pops memoir, Real Men Don't Rehearse, along with his other books Principles of Applied Stupidity and Getting in Touch Your Inner Rich Kid. Also check out his upcoming Berlin premiere!

Rio de Janeiro is, of course, one of those great romantic destinations. I grew up listening to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim (as well as Joao and Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz), and when I had a chance to visit the land of Bossa Nova, Corcovado, and Girls from Ipanema, I jumped at it.

The Pic at right is Ipanema beach at sunset (looking west). While no picture could ever capture the feel of Rio, this one at least has all its elements: an intensely crowded urban environment in the middle of "sun and sea and sky, and mountains climbing so high," as one Tony Bennett song describes it.

To give you a little overview (literally), here is a shot (through cablecar wires) from the top of Sugarloaf (a big rock that rises from the sea), this is the view looking west toward the crescent of Copacabana Beach. Ipanema Beach lies beyond the top of the crescent.

Also from Sugarloaf, this time looking north (a little to right of the previous pic), the peninsula in the center is a part of Rio known as "Flamengo." Flamengo beach is on the right side of the peninsula. Further north, up and to the right in the distance, is "Centro," the downtown area.

Here is a panoramic view of Flamengo beach. The weather is a little better! (Slide your browser bar to get the full effect) Sugarloaf is the highest peak on the right.

We travel now to Copacabana. This is Copacabana Beach looking west. In Rio, they do everything with style. There are very few concrete sidewalks in Rio. Almost every sidewalk is a mosaic of colored stones, built by hand, and each section of the city has its own designs in its walks. (Note the bike path next to the roadway).

About face, this is a shot looking east on Copacabana Beach. All along Copacabana and Ipanema beach, every 100 feet or so there are little cabanas that sell food, beer, cold coconuts, and caipirinhas, the Brazilian national drink (it can best be described as 80 proof lemonade-- made of lime juice, sugar, and cachaça). So civilized. There are "independent contractors" who will go and get the stuff for you if you don't want to leave your spot on the beach.

Throughout Rio there are little pockets of places that harken back to bygone eras. This is Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Gloria do Outeiro (Church of Our Lady of Glory on the Knoll), which sits on the top of Gloria Hill (note the stone wall below), right next to my hotel. At one time this was right next to the water (the shoreline was extended with landfill to build the highway), can you imagine how gorgeous it must have been??

And now for the reason for my trip: The Theatro Municipal of Rio de Janeiro . . . .

. . . produced "O Fantasma do Theatro," an enlarged adaption of my Phantom of the Orchestra. This piece is designed to be played on orchestral family concerts, and calls for orchestra and four actors. But again, in Rio, they do things with style; in this case, they added 5 acrobats, a men's chorus, a corps of ballerinas, a children's dance troupe, an opera diva, magnificent sets and costumes, and of course a full orchestra. (Note the standing ovation! ;-)

Here you see kids lining up outside the theatro before the show.

And here I am with some of the ballerinas . . . It was difficult, but I managed to enjoy myself . . . :-)

Here is a rather dark photo of the second floor lobby of the Theatro Municipal. (Toward the right you can see the entrance to a circular salon. There are many French doors opening out on a shallow balcony). The Theatro Municipal is an amazing edifice. The whole thing was imported from Europe, and it was recently refurbished to its original glory. If you have ever been to the Newport Mansions or the Paris Opera Guarnier you have some idea of the opulence of the interior.

Here is a shot of the lobby stairway, from the theatro's website virtual tour.

These are two shots of a side balcony of the Theatro. Note in the mosaic on the wall a scene of dancers in the plaza with the theatro in the background.

This is the view of the city square from the front (second floor) of the Theatro (note the mosaic patterns in the plaza). The entire city square was laid out with exceptional care and planning, in order to give a view of Sugarloaf in the distance. Like I said, in Rio, they do things with style.

As you drive in to downtown from the south, you can see this old viaduct. It carries electric trams that take you to Santa Theresa. Santa Theresa is an old part of the city that is very hilly. It is where a lot of artists live, and it has more character than you would believe. I was there at night, so I didn't have enough light to take any pics of it. Definitely plan to have dinner there (and listen to some music) at least one evening if you go. But also, take a cab after dark.

This is the view of Sugarloaf from the pool area of my Hotel. I stayed at Hotel Gloria, a Grand Dame of old Rio Hotels, terribly elegant, service is just impeccable. (Of course, the service throughout Rio is just fantastic.) It's not near the south beaches, but I was only a 3 or 5 dollar cab ride away.

If you have ever seen "Flying Down to Rio" (the first movie in which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced together), I believe the hotel in which some of the action takes place was loosely based on the Copacabana Palace, which is still one of the swankiest hotels in Rio.

If you ever go, one place I highly recommend (if you can tear yourself away from the beach) is the Botanical Gardens. The small admittance fee includes a personally guided tour of part of its 338 acres. It is visually breathtaking, but it was also an "R&D" lab for the colonials who were experimenting with various agricultural possibilities. I think it still serves that function.

This is a spot in the gardens where Antonio Carlos Jobim would sit and think up new music. They named it after him, altho you can't read the plaque in this photo.

Speaking of which, I was amused to discover that the Girl from Ipanema was an actual person, named Heloise Pinheiro. She's in her sixties now, but I hear she's still quite fetching! Note, in Ipanema you can visit the bar where jobim wrote the song.

Here you see the stairs leading up to Christ the Redeemer. This pic is a little misleading, as this is one BIG statue. Getting there requires taking a train through The Tijuca Forest, an urban jungle. Worth going once. This, along with the top of Sugarloaf, is one of the few actual touristy places in Rio. There are people who take your picture on the way up and they put it on a plate and try to get you to buy it when you get back on the train. This is a common tourist scam in Rio, they take your pic without asking and then put guilt on you to buy it later. Don't feel bad about not buying it, they just wash you off the plate and start over. Rio does not really have its tourist act together, for which I am grateful. The down side is, even at the tourist destinations it's hard to find much of anything worth buying in terms of gifts or souvenirs.

(Volleyball on Copacabana Beach at dusk.) People don't just hang out and tan on the beach in Rio. The after school soccer and volleyball practices are all on the beach. I saw volleyball games going on until ten at night. Why sit in a stuffy bar when you can sit on Ipanema beach and have a drink while you watch the sun set? Of course, the music in the bars is pretty good! When these pics were taken it hadn't rained in two weeks, so, lacking the pollution that normally washes into the ocean, the water was exceptionally clean (as a general rule, Flamengo beach is worse than the southern beaches). There were even some dolphins swimming close to shore, but I missed them.

The pool of the Copacabana Palace Hotel. Pretty Posh.

For more on Justin Locke's books and speaking appearances, visit his website at justinlocke.com

Orchestra Managers and Conductors: for your next family concert, JLP offers these internationally acclaimed programs:
Peter VS the Wolf and The Phantom of the Orchestra.

And for Everyone Else: Justin's Locke's book, Real Men Don't Rehearse, is an amusing inside look at the zany secret world of professional orchestras. It is illustrated with dozens of humorous tales of musician antics and concert meltdowns.

ORDER YOUR COPY | Read Excerpts | Reader Reviews

A few things to know about Rio if you plan to go:

The airport is LONG way from the city. I always get picked up so i can't give you any advice on how to get in. There are buses and cabs.

Cabs have two rates. Rate "1" is the regular rate, and rate "2" (about 15 percent more money) is for after 8:00 pm (I think), and all day sundays. Rate 2 also applies any time you are driving the hilly narrow streets of Santa Theresa! Note, outside the hotels the concierge will try to put you into a higher end car service, they won't mention that these cabs cost about twice as much. I just pretended to be out for a walk and went a half block to a waiting yellow cab. I never had a problem finding a cab in Rio.

When travelling to South America it is always a good idea to drink only bottled water, which is plentifully available in Rio, either com (with) gas or sem (without) gas. Note that the ice in the bars is generally made with bottled water, so don't fear the ice in your drink. Remember to use the bottled water to brush your teeth!

The subway (there is only one line running the length of the city) doesn't run on Sunday.

When i was there my Discover Cards did not work. Also, the cash machines at the airport would not take my Cirrus bank card (this was March 2002). My credit cards might have worked for cash advances, but i never tried them, fortunately I brought enough cash, and I just did currency exchanges at my hotel. I think the best deal is to use your credit cards for most purchases. Change dollars into reals as you need them, as turning cash dollars into reals takes a big bite. A "real" (Brazilian currency, pronounced "hey-OW") was worth about 40 cents when I was there. You can check the current exchange rate here. Also be advised that when you fly out there is an "exit tax" (I think you can prepay it when you buy your airline ticket) of about $25.

You need a visa to go to Brazil from the USA. Takes a few weeks to get so plan ahead. Not sure of the cost, I paid about $40 for my first trip 5 years ago, but I hear it may be $150 now. You need to use it within a few months of the purchase. then it's good for 5 years. I think. You may also have to get shots now for yellow fever.

A lot of people like to cry panic about the crime in Rio, and they enjoy telling scare stories. Yes, crime is a factor there, but if you take steps to avoid making yourself a victim/target you shouldn't have any problem. The danger is part of the fun and excitement. Don't fear it; accept it and adjust to it. Be aware that there are certain areas, some only a block from your restaurant or hotel, where it is unwise to walk even at noon on Sunday. Ask the locals for advice, they are happy to tell you. Don't take anything to Rio you can't afford to lose. Expensive cameras or jewelry make you a target. There are roving bands of adolescent boys who work in teams; one will distract you while another grabs your bag. Don't hand out money to panhandlers, ten more will appear like seagulls.

Be very careful when crossing streets, it's easy to get run over in Rio. I can't emphasize this enough. Note that the bike paths near the beach are also to be respected. No one uses lights on their bikes and they go FAST, even in the black of night, so keep your eyes open. I came within six inches of learning this the very hard way.

The locals advise against riding the buses, and I found the cabs to be so cheap that there was no real point in taking the buses, but you should ride a bus just once for the experience of drag racing in a 10 ton vehicle. They get up to 50 mph between stops.

If you start chatting with a Carioca (a term used to describe a native of Rio), don't be surprised if you find yourself having a drink or dinner with them. It really is that kind of a friendly place. I asked one couple at a cabana on Ipanema beach for directions to a restaurant, and this turned into a half hour conversation. They bought me a drink, then they sent me to a different restaurant and turned me on to a concert of brasilian folk music at the Alvin Theater on Ipanema Beach that I thoroughly enjoyed.

If you decide to walk the length of Copacabana, it is best to walk west to east (better view). On Ipanema, the best view is looking west.

Do be mindful of the Dengue Fever (a form of malaria). If there isn't enough wind to keep mosquitoes away, use the bug spray.

This website was a little frustrating to build because there is so much to Rio that I can't put into a two dimensional format. The eyes of some people in Rio are amazing, they shine like children on Christmas Eve. Hard to describe. The food is fantastic. They can't afford pesticides, so everything is organic. Brazilian pizza is made with fresh heirloom tomatoes, cheese, and fresh basil. Fantastic. Obviously, there is some cheap food, but at least when you want something good you can get it. Hotel Gloria is highly recommended for dinner. They are big into buffet dinners in Brasil. All you can eat.

I recommend learning a little Portuguese before you go. The Pimsleur method is great.

I took all of these pics with a CVS disposable camera. Don't take an expensive camera (or, for that matter, expensive jewelry) to Rio.

There is a huge shopping mall called Rio Sul in Botafoga. 400 stores, on 4 stories.

One thing I noticed after the fact was the lack of advertising in Rio. We think we are so wealthy here in the USA, yet (with apologies to my many friends in the ad biz), we live in a visual cesspool of contrived manipulative images. It was great to get away from that for a while.

There are many parts of Rio that are very ugly. It is crowded and many buildings are falling down and there are slums being built all over. But no matter what they do, the overall effect of the mountains and the sea is wonderful.

The duty free shops at the airport only sell high-priced cachaça (an essential ingredient for caipirinhas).

Big public Samba displays only happen during Carnaval.

The flight from New York is a little over 9 hours. Most flights are overnight affairs. If you're lucky and/or clever, you can be one of the envied few to get three seats in the center aisle all to yourself to stretch out and sleep. One trick, never ask for a window seat. Ask to sit in the rear of the plane when you check in. There's generally nothing to see anyway, it's dark and the Amazon is usually all misted over (it IS a RAIN forest, remember).

Well, that's about it. From the top of Corcovado, with Ipanema in the background, I send you beijos e abraços from Rio! JL

P.S. You can also see my pics of my trip to Paris!

For more info, questions, etc., email me at justinlocke1@gmail.com.

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