Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Rio-location Vacation

 Finally, after almost an entire year living in Brazil, I've made it to Rio de Janeiro. Helen, having been there five or six times already for work reasons, has been telling me for months that it's beautiful and fabulous and so nice it makes São Paulo look like a huge, ugly, smelly megalopolis which has very little going for it apart from available office space. Which is, of course, exactly what it is. However, it's also my home and having lived here for a year I've become quite fond of the place, warts and all, and quite defensive, too. I found myself flying up to Rio fully prepared to find the place flashy and shallow and nothing but a huge tourist trap - something like a Greek holiday resort but on a much larger scale.

I was wrong. Rio is nothing like the gauche, party capital I'd imagined. More than anything the impression I got was of a city just getting on with business but handily situated in one of the most naturally beautiful locations on the planet. True, there are tourists - a lot of tourists - and a large part of Rio is set up to cater to them in a way that you don't see at all in São Paulo, but it's generally done quite subtly and as most of the Cariocas (Rio locals) seem to spend most of their time enjoying the same facilities as the tourists, it's very easy to forget you're actually an outsider.

We left São Paulo from Congonhas Airport, a tiny strip of runway carved out from among the thousands of skyscrapers squeezing in on all sides. Looking out of my window as we turned onto the runway there seemed to be about five metres of taxiway left before a drop down onto an eight-lane dual-carriageway several metres below. In Rio, at Santos Dumont Airport, there is also little more than a few metres at either end of the runway but in this case it is the sea that surrounds the runway, not roads, and nearly landing in the sea is so much more picturesque than nearly landing on a road.

Our hotel for the week was the Sheraton in Leblon - a very fancy hotel in a very fancy part of town - and this in itself was an adventure for us as our usual family holiday involves something a lot more basic and wallet-friendly. However, Helen had found us an unfeasibly good deal and having spent similar amounts on significantly less salubrious hotels in the past, she then spent much of the week saying things like; "This is great. I can't believe we got such a good deal. I'm definitely staying here again."

And it really was great, although calling it Leblon was perhaps stretching the point somewhat, seeing as how the hotel was actually up the hill and round the corner from Leblon. But it came with its own stretch of beach - not exactly private, but so hard to get to except through the hotel that it in effect was. We tried to spend every morning down on the beach, but except for the first day and the last two, the waves were so big and the undertow so strong that we were forced to abandon the sea in favour of the heated swimming pool instead. Oh, the hardship!

And quite by chance, we also found ourselves sharing the hotel with the Brazilian national football team while they spent a couple of days preparing for their trip down to Argentina for the Copa América. Now I'll freely admit that I'm not the most devoted of football fans, but even I thought it was kind of cool to get into a lift and discover that the other four occupants were Thiago Silva, Robinho, Daniel Alves and Jefferson. (I think this is right - I didn't stop to ask for autographs but I did spend a long time looking through team photos on Google later on.)

Anyway, when we weren't hob-nobbing it with the footballers we did actually go off and try to see something of the city outside the hotel grounds. On Sunday we spent a most pleasant day in the Jardim Botânico, wandering around among the greenery and almost never getting lost. Having come from Cambridge, which has its own world-class botanic gardens, I was interested to see how Rio would compare. I am very far from being even a competent botanist, so please feel free to ignore my opinions but my feeling was that while it was a vast and pleasant place to wander through, there was not that much in the way of plant diversity. We walked through a lot of dense vegetation and passed by some truly enormous trees, but after a while they all started to look the same.

Still, they did have a fabulous cactus garden, which David particularly enjoyed, some interesting monuments dotted around the place...and monkeys. Hungry monkeys.

There was also an interesting pool in the eating area.

Five seconds after this photo was taken Helen called out to the kids to be careful and not fall in. Even before the words were out of her mouth, David was in the water.

Still, all things considered, the boys were pretty good at not complaining about being dragged around a well-tended jungle for several hours in the middle of a hot afternoon (24 degrees in the middle of winter - now that's weather I can live with).

On Monday we paid a visit to the one place you absolutely have to go to when in Rio (apart from the cash machine) and that is the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) on Corcovado mountain. There is a small electric train that goes up the mountain at about 45 degrees and deposits you 233 steps below the statue twenty minutes later. Honestly, the trip is worth it for the train ride alone, never mind the fantastic views at the top.

But fantastic they really are.

I don't want to end up sounding like a tourist guide, but the whole experience was really wonderful. Below the statue are various places to sit and get something to eat and drink and at this time of year, and not at the weekend, they weren't even particularly busy.

The only downside to the trip is that David has now devised a new game, the only rule of which is that whenever he sees Corcovado, either in real life or in a photo, he has to bellow CORCOVADO!! at the top of his voice. And as it's something of a ubiquitous landmark, and somewhat photogenic, the game gets to be very tiring, very quickly and very often.


The other big 'must see' in Rio is Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain). Since Pão de Açúcar is also the name of the supermarket I visit almost every day here in São Paulo, it has always struck me as quite funny that I'd want to go all the way to Rio just to visit Pão de Açúcar. But then I am daily reminded that no one else in this family regards my sense of humour as in any way humorous.


Anyway, the trip to the mountain itself involves a double cable car ride, stopping off first on the lower Morro da Urca and then going up to the top of Pão de Açúcar itself. Again, as with Corcovado, the whole area has been designed and built extremely tastefully, with plenty of places to sit and rest, nice shops and stunning views. We stopped off on Urca for a brief and very pleasant picnic and then carried on up to he main event.

Obviously, the views are not quite so spectacular here as they are from Corcovado, although it does give a superb view of aircraft landing at Santos Dumont, banking gracefully in a 90 degree turn and lining up with the runway no more than about thirty seconds or so before touching down. Bizarrely, no one else found this as exciting as I did.

The one other tourist outing we had planned for the week was to go to Santa Teresa, a very beautiful neighbourhood stuck on the top of a hill and full of narrow winding streets and artists studios and the like - or so I'm led to believe. Sadly, we didn't actually make it. We'd planned to go on our last day and one of the main points of the trip is to travel up on the bondinho (tram) but we arrived at the lower station about ten minutes after it had closed due to a fatality and it wasn't going to open again for the rest of the day. We could have gone up by taxi, but as it was the ride on the bondinho we'd been most looking forward to, we dicided to postpone the trip until our next time in Rio.

Instead, we took the metro down to the beach and partook of that most typical of Rio activities - walking along the beach. There are well-built and well-maintained calçadas (mosaic pavements) running the whole length of the main beaches in Rio and they are constantly filled with people simply wandering up and down enjoying the view. On one side you have a wide, two-way cycle lane used by cyclists, roller-bladers, skateboarders and joggers and on the other a glorious sandy beach, filled with sunbathers, surfers and volleyballers.

Being Rio, there are a lot of bodies on display and while many of them are certainly physically impressive or aesthetically pleasing, insignificant swimwear and generous girth are by no means mutually exclusive. However, being Rio, no one seems to care and people of all shapes and sizes are perfectly happy to parade their semi-naked selves up and down the calçada all day long without a second thought.

Amazingly, we managed to get our two couch potatoes to walk the entire length of Ipanema and Leblon beaches (two and a quarter miles) with no more than two refreshment stops and a bit of piggy-backing. And I have to admit, having spent most of the morning in the swimming pool and part of the early afternoon wandering around downtown Rio before the beach walk, even I was quite happy to sit down for a short while back at the hotel - anyone who tells you I collapsed on my bed for an hour, refusing to move and using my bad back as an excuse is clearly remembering things wrong!

And that, pretty much, was that. Although it may not seem like a particularly full week, there was plenty of other stuff I haven't bothered to mention; James and David making new friends as well as meeting old friends from school down by the hotel pool, some fabulous sessions being knocked about by waves that were just the right side of dangerous, a lot of pizzas, three days of Festa Junina games, a lot of ice cream...

...and then back to São Paulo. Poor dirty, smelly, cold, beach-less São Paulo. How can it possibly compete with Rio de Janeiro? However, coming home did feel a bit like changing out of a clean, fresh tee-shirt and shorts and into an old and grubby tracksuit. It may not look as good, but it does feels reassuringly familiar. And anyway, it's only for a few days as we're off again next week - this time back to the UK and Ireland on our annual shopping trip.

So no more blogs for a while.

Happy holidays.


Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Chess Tournament

The Chess Tournament

When Giovanni, Grandmaster, national champion and part-time school chess teacher, asked Andrew, James’ father, if James would be interested in taking part in tournaments and competitions outside school, the obvious response was to feel flattered and excited and say yes, of course James would be delighted.
“Are you sure he’s good enough?” was what he actually said.
Giovanni shrugged.
“Of course. There are competitions for children of all levels. And I think it will be a good experience for him anyway.”
“Well, yes,” said Andrew, realising he was being somewhat unsupportive of his own son and trying to row back from his initial lack of faith. “I’m sure James would be happy enough with that.”
He turned to James.
“Wouldn’t you?”
“Yeah,” replied James. “Of course.”
And that was that. James went back to studying chess for one afternoon a week, after school on Wednesdays, and playing the occasional game at home against his dad whenever the pair of them weren’t too busy conquering, civilizing or colonizing various hostile worlds on the computer.
And then, before you could say, “oh my God, the first tournament is next week and we haven’t done any practice for ages!” the first tournament arrived. By way of preparation James and his dad played two games a night for the two nights before the tournament – during which James was supplied with a constant stream of positive advice and tips on strategy.
“Don’t rush so much. Think about your moves before you make them, then you won’t make so many mistakes. Your endgame is terrible. You had that game won and you threw away all your advantage by not thinking properly. Do you want to take that move back? No? Okay, well it’s your loss.”
And then there was the more general advice.
“Now don’t worry if you lose all your matches. This is only your first tournament and it’s all about just seeing what they’re like. It would be nice to win at least one, but I don’t want you to give up on chess just because you can’t win a single match at your first tournament.”
After such a torrent of confidence-boosting encouragement, it was hardly surprising that James was somewhat nervous as he entered the hall and came face to face with well over a hundred eager, confident children, many of whom knew each other well from previous tournaments or club meetings and five of whom were almost certainly about to crush his nascent chess career.
He saw some people he knew – Enzo and Lucas from the club at school – and he wandered over to watch them playing a warm-up game. These were people he knew he could beat, had beaten many times, and with relief he realised he was probably not going to finish bottom after all. For want of anything better to do, he played a couple of warm-up games himself, winning the first easily. He was winning the second as well when it was interrupted by the tournament organisers suddenly deciding to play some very loud music through the PA system and this seemed to distract not only his opponent but also a great majority of the other children in the room, as well as their parents.
However, once the Brazilian national anthem was finished, the tournament began.
James’ first opponent was already sitting at the table when he arrived, getting some last-minute advice from his dad as well as a paternal ruffle of the hair and an enthusiastic thumbs up. Andrew had already seen the man chatting amicably to the tournament organisers and assumed that his son was probably one of the tournament-circuit regulars.
“I think this guy is going to be really good,” Andrew said to James by way of last-minute encouragement. “Don’t worry too much if he slaughters you. It’s only your first game.” And then as an afterthought; “But try and have fun.”
James greeted his opponent with a casual nod, set the timer for ten minutes each and then when the word was given to start playing, the two of them began a furious to-and-fro of move, click, move, click, move, click – except when one or other of them forgot to click the timer and there would be a brief and complicated click, click, click as they tried to work out whose turn it was and whose timer was running down.
Andrew wandered off, too nervous to watch, then wandered back, too curious to stay away, then wandered off again, too frustrated to watch. He could see that James had captured his opponent’s queen – that was good – then lost his own queen – stupid – then some other parent got in the way and he couldn’t see anything at all… and then it was all over. The two boys put up their hands to show they had finished and one of the adjudicators came over, checked the result and marked it down on his sheet.
“So?” Andrew asked as James wandered over.
James shrugged.
“You won?”
“Hey, well done. You’ve won your first tournament game. Now if you lose the other four it doesn’t matter because at least you’ll have won one game.”
It was difficult to tell which of them was more relieved. Andrew probably, as James clearly still needed more relief.
“Where’s the loo?”
There were free drinks as well, and after emptying from one end, he filled up again from the other and then wandered off to see how the other players he knew had fared.
“I won,” said Enzo proudly, “because my opponent wasn’t there.”
“Cool,” replied James. “I wish I could’ve done that. I had to win by getting a checkmate.”
And having been victorious, James would now be facing an opponent who had also won in the first round. When the tables were announced he took his place and waited to see who he had this time.
Andrew’s heart sank when the opponent arrived.
“Dammit,” he said. “It’s only the second game and already you’re up against someone wearing glasses. That’s never a good sign. Still, at least he’s not Asian. Always be wary of Asian kids and especially the Asian kids who wear glasses. They’re the real killers.”
Move, click. Move, click. Move, click.
This time the table was closer to the side of the hall where all the parents were forced to stand and Andrew was able to get a clear view of the board. The opening was fairly straightforward on both sides, with a certain amount of pawn juggling, and then the two of them settled down to a rapid series of piece-for-piece swaps. Some pawns went, then the knights and bishops, more pawns, then the queens. The board was practically empty. But James’ precious ten minutes was rapidly running out. He had the better position but Glasses was playing a good delaying game and James was too pressed for time to be able to stop and think. Move, click. Move, click.
James missed a possible checkmate. Andrew was staring furiously at the back of his head, willing him to see it, screaming silently. Move, click. Move, click. One minute left…forty-five seconds…thirty…twenty…
Glasses looked disappointed. Whether he felt he should have won, or whether he’d simply been pinning his hopes on outlasting the clock Andrew couldn’t tell, but James was clearly delighted with the result.
“I need the loo again.”
Now James had time to wolf his way through a cheese and ham sandwich, a Twix and another soft drink – all provided free by the organisers. And Andrew was so pleased he gave James no more than a five-minute lecture on how he could have got the checkmate earlier and how he really needed to improve his endgame and they even had time for a quick practice game to pass the time.
When James was close to winning it, Andrew announced that he wasn’t really trying. And besides, they were just putting up the names for the next round. After two wins, James was put up on the number three table and it was clear his opponent was going to be a much tougher one this time. Not Asian, but much, much worse. He wore glasses. He wore a tee-shirt which said; I play Chess. He wore a cap with his name embroidered onto it and he wore an official chess jacket with his name printed on it. In the battle of intimidation, he’d already won hands down.
He took the game fairly comfortably as well, looking quite bored by the end. James battled on, at least forcing his opponent to demonstrate how to play a successful endgame and James was able to leave the table knowing he’d been totally outclassed but not in any way humiliated.
“Ah well,” said Andrew. “Two wins is more than I ever got in a chess tournament. And at least now your next opponent will probably not be as good. It would be nice to get one more win, then you can come away with a winning record.”
Interesting. Three hours earlier he’d been giving James advice on how to deal with crushing defeat and now here he was talking about coming away with a winning record.
For his fourth game, and a little later than expected, James was finally brought face-to-face with his first Asian opponent. But sadly for the young lad he seemed more concerned with the temperature than the game, being encased in a thick, puffy coat which hid everything except his face and the tips of his fingers. Plus he didn’t wear glasses.
And he didn’t last long. James finished him off well within time and without really breaking a sweat – something his opponent would dearly have loved to do, no doubt.
“Well, there it is,” said Andrew with a smile. “Your first tournament and you come away with a winning record. Even if you lose your last game you still have that.”
“Yeah,” James replied. “But 4-1 would be really great.”
And 4-1 it was to be. The final game turned out to be another relatively easy win for James but against a good, friendly opponent who was happy to chat across the table both before and after the match. Competitors’ medals had already been handed out at the start of the final match and there didn’t look as if there was going to be any sort of prize-giving, so there was nothing left to do but head home, James with a broad grin on his face and a medal round his neck and Andrew wondering whether there would now be parents warning their children to watch out if they found themselves up against any blond haired foreign kids in future tournaments – they were the really evil ones.
However, no successful tournament would be complete without some sort of reward ceremony and so before going home James was presented with a celebratory hot chocolate from the local café. And Andrew, feeling that all his nagging and negative advice must have gone some way towards achieving the end result, had one too.