Friday, 22 June 2012

Dark day in Rio

It all turned to custard. The plan was for a group of us from the UVSQ to go up to Christ the Redeemer, the famous statue overlooking Rio de Janeiro. We hopped aboard a bone-shaker bus to take us to the bottom where we would catch a special little train to take us to the top. This train is not cheap but the view is said to be priceless.

As we joined the small queue for the train we noticed a video screen showing... nothing really, inside a cloud? It was the view near the top. Umm. Not worth paying money for that. It was raining from time to time and the clouds had descended enough to cover the tops of all hills. Darn! The others who all spoke Portugese organised a group tour aroundabout and maybe a walk in the forest. OK, I thought, sounds like a good idea.

Then I remembered I had received an open invitation forwarded to me via email, to meet the NZ Minister for the Environment Amy Adams. Since the National government had robbed me of my environmental job in Auckland and disbanded anything with 'sustainability' in its name I was curious to find out if sustainability was now genuinely on the Minister's agenda - being at Rio and all that. All Kiwis who wanted to come were welcome.

I trawled the internet but couldn't find anything that fit the location indicated. I emailed a member of the NZ delegation saying that the event seemed A LONG WAY AWAY. Oh no, very central, he replied. Riocentro wasn't central. I thought maybe it was in Centro suburb but really doubted that. Oh well, I had the adddress, I'd get a taxi.

So I had to decline to join my colleagues on their tour because I had to be back to change and go meet the minister. In the meantime I could squeeze in Ipanema Beach. Disappointed not to see the statue and then disappointed not to be accompanying my colleagues who understood Portugese, I was left to my own resources. I found myself a bus to my Metro station, bought a ticket for Ipanema and hopped aboard what is the most efficient way to get around Rio, The Metro.

Arriving at my destination I had no idea in which direction lay the beach but this didn't phase me. I just set off walking. I couldn't understand any road signs but followed the crowds. There lay the beach, along with spots of rain. The sand was beige coloured and not polished round by the waves, Instead each grain was sharp and edgy though very fine. It seemed to have an annoying way of sticking to everything and not brushing off. The beach was almost deserted. I am told that in winter the ocean current that flows along this coast is quite cold. Too cold for the Brazilians even though the air temperatures are balmy. No foreigners were braving it either. The sand showed only the turmoil of passing people and the delicate footprints of pigeons. This beach has no shells, or driftwood or seaweed or even seabirds.

What to do in the rain on the beach? Get crazy! so I pulled up my raincoat hood over my head and lay down on the damp sand to soak in the vibes. Ah Ipanema- where was your soul? if it was saying anything I couldn't hear it over the din of traffic and people and emergency vehicles. The waves drowned in the artificial ocean of humanity's progress.And this was Winter! Sterile Ipanema- no vibes at all. So the girl on Ipanema beach got up and looked for some lunch.

I munched a tasty Falafel kebab and headed back to the metro and home to change. Looking business smart I set off from Rua Santo Amaro to hail a taxi. There are many taxis in Rio, you can usually find one when you want. The rest of the evening became a complicated nightmare so let's look at it in chronological notes...

1. Taxi driver has no idea where to go, even though I give him the address and some notes
2. Taxi driver starts yelling at passing cabs for directions- they laugh and drive off
3. Taxi driver spots a group of elderly taxi drivers having a meeting and pulls over for assistance
4. They debate, ignoring me.
5. I am told to get out of the taxi and go sit in another one.
6. I have no idea where I am going and what will happen
7. After driving for an hour I have no idea where we are as nothing looks familiar and I'm a bit nervous
8. The meter is climbing dangerously high with the tariff
9. We reach a toll station and taxi driver asks if anyone speaks English
10. One guard is found with a little English who indicates a lane that should get us to where we need to go.
11. I have now missed my appointment to see the Minister
12. We drive for another half an hour and I can see from the meter that I will not have enough money for the return trip
13. We see a small sign that says Riocentro but there is only one lane and it's a traffic jam all along the way
14. I start biting my nails - a habit I gave up at the age of 10.
15. The driver has no idea where to drop me off
16. I insist on getting out as the fee has become too high for me. Taxi driver is angry.
17. Taxi driver adds an extra 30 reais to the bill
18. I demand he write a receipt before we go further
19. I explain I don't have enough money to pay the topup he's demanding and the driver gets stroppy
20. In desperation I give him all money (notes, coins in any currency) and it comes to 95 reais.
21. I have NO money to get home-stranded. Taxi driver has driven a very circuitous route and ripped me off.
22. Military police say I cannot enter this pavilion because I do not have accreditation.
23. I am told to go to Pavilion 1 to get accreditation but it's too far for me to walk in the mud
24. Guy phones his driver to bring the car around and drop me off. Kind but fruitless.
25. Pavilion guards sayIi must check in with UN staff because I have no accreditiation.
26. UN staff hand me from one to another until I am told I am not in their system. Of course not- it's an open invitation to all Kiwis and I have my passport.
27. Am told to try to get past the gaurd at the next pavillion and then I can find some New Zealanders and a money machine
28. Guard refuses me entry and says I'm the only person who has ever tried to get in without accreditation.
29. I am told to wait in a room while someone speaks to someone in the NZ delegation
30.NZ woman tells me there's a mistake, all Kiwis already at the venue are invited. They hadn't imagined I might hear the call of Aotearoa from outside the RIO complex. I cannot come in.
31. Guard accompanies me to ATM and then to a shuttle bus going in the general direction of where I stay.
32. I find myself sitting next to the under-secretary for Forest and Environment for Gambia. We chat off and on for the next hour and a half while he explains climate change is their biggest environmental issue.
32. I spot a familiar hotel, jump off the bus, find a metro station and make my way home in the dark and spitting rain. Utterly exhausted. I just have enough energy to eat a Mango for dinner and then head for bed.

After relating this tale to a Brazilian I was informed that all foreigners are targets, no matter if you are rich or poor, they don't care. It's often organised and often successful. If you don't speak Portugese you are easy meat, there's little you can do.

The man second to the Minister for Forests and Environment in Gambia had told me he'd been ripped off in a hotel scam but discovered it after the first day so he avoided too much of a loss. Taxi fares are usually a rip-off so find out what the fare should be and get out of the car before taking off if the driver insists on more money. Cautionary tale, this one.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Another side of Rio+20

After spending days shut inside window-less rooms in high-rise hotels during meetings, it was time to check out the People's Summit, located in a park area not too far from our house. The day was warm - they all are - up to 30 degrees now in the middle of winter. There was nothing peaceful about this excursion. The air throbbed with the chomphchomphchomph of military police helicopters overhead, usually three at once.

I was thrilled to discover that a large area was devoted to indigenous wares and the proprietors of the displays were utterly intriguing. I had never seen an Amazonian in person. There were many variations on body markings and headdresses but everything was so colourful and the feathers...the feathers. These people were the real Macoy.

I enquired as to the cost of a modest feather headdress; it was the equivalent of $200 euros so I had to pass on that. Instead I consoled myself with some feather earrings. There were plenty of necklaces, bows and arrows, blowpipes and ceremonial maracas. I was disappointed not to see any music and dance items. There were just political messages and selling.

Around the other side there were very few natives but a lot of political messages about the endangered Amazon, groups from Uruguay and Argentina joined in. Greenpeace was there, of course. Corporates had hijacked the green concepts.

I had my first taste of the famous Acai drink made from red Amadonian berries. It's a bit weird in taste to start with but after the first couple of sips it slides down quite easily. Acai is supposed to be chock-full of vitamins and other anti-oxidents.

There are a great many issues being aired in Rio at this time. One of them was lack of opportunities and racisms. A Brazilian businessman had turned himself into a standing billboard and invited others to support his messages so I thought, why not. Good for him. Many like him are giving up their free or work time to try to make a statement or even a small difference. So, for a few minutes there I was too.
The media were having the time of their lives filming the colourful spokespersons. A number of interviews were going on and as I walked back home I came across one of our project members from Ecuador speaking to camera on our street.

One of the most amusing sights I found was the metro full of native Brazilians in Amazonian dress queuing for the trains. I'm sure most Rio residents would have found that interesting too because there were SO many of these visitors. Everyone seemed to be making the most of Rio + 20 to be seen and heard-a good thing, I think. It reminded us that it's possible to live more sustainably and more connected with the planet without having to eke out a living in the jungle if we don't choose to. The important thing is to ensure we have a choice.

What I didn't like was seeing some of the Amazonians standing around smoking cigarettes and drinking out of cans. It seemed incongruous and took something away from the dignity of their culture.Some modern practices are certainly a step in the wrong direction.

I made two visits to the people's summit. I didn't benefit as much as others would because I don't speak Portugese and there were few efforts made at the event to produce any materials or presentations in English. The lack of attention to the use of English or French (both official UN languages) at such an international event was a great weakness everywhere, from the presentations, to the restaurant staff, to the hotel staff and taxi-drivers. It my opinion it was a missed opportunity for Brazil.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

The other side of Rio

I'm not blaming Rio for its patchy, rainy weather and I'm not blaming it for the sub-standard accommodation I find myself in. But I am disappointed so far.

I arrived in Rio de Janeiro on Monday morning, very early, after an 11 hour flight from Paris.The reason for being here was to attend key meetings concerning a project which is part of my work, as well as to attend the international conference for the International Society for Ecological Economics. This field is not my forte but I thought it might be helpful to attend in order to gain more awareness of what my colleagues and the organisation I work for are interested in.

This was not a tourist visit but even so I was struck by what assailed my senses on the way in from the airport. Firstly it was the smell. The smell of polluted water-pollution from wastewater. You can smell it for kilometres. How ironic, I thought, that Rio + 20 is being held here in a few days. Then again, what better place to hold it as an example of what's going horribly wrong with the behaviours and attitudes of humans to the environment.

As I walked the streets of Rio I was gobsmacked at the rubbish everywhere; sometimes in piles, sometimes just strewn everywhere on every street at every few centimetres. There is no footpath maintenance or cleaning. It's hard to see what the city council does to provide a healthy environment for its people. Forget the rock, forget the statue-they are meaningless. For me the reality on the ground was a huge disappointment. There are so many disintegrating, graffitied buildings. There is little evidence of civic pride. Despite the thousands of extra security staff for all the conferences and meetings associated around Rio + 20 it all seems so squalid.

The afternoon tour was washed out. We couldn't see across the harbour, the bridge disappeared in the murk as we all huddled together under umbrellas yet still got wet. Not the best start but we were philosophical. Rio is a big city and what is odd for me, the poor live on the hillsides while the rich live down below.

The favelas (slums) are actually pointed out on maps and are given names yet barriers or opaque and translucent panels are erected along the motorways to hide them from view. If you try hard enough you can catch a glimpse of this other reality. It's like a war zone with rubble everywhere, animals wandering, skeletons of buildings, most without roofs. And people have to survive in there. Shameful! There's crime, organised crime and it touches many people.

On the second day we travelled by bus to visit FIOCRUZ, the national school for public health. It's virtually in a compound with the favelas next door to it. There were security guards on the entrance. We were told that we were not to leave the compound. There had been shootings nearby recently as the mafia and others fought drug wars so the area was dangerous. We did as we were advised and stayed put, travelling only via our bus. This was the first time I had visited a South American country and so far the experience isn't very positive. I hope that might change before I have to leave at the end of next week.

Monday, 4 June 2012

For love of flowers

Imagine fields of majestic blooms as far as the eye can see, 360 degrees, whichever way you turn. There I was, standing in the narrow pathways created for the public to appreciate this spectacle. The delicate perfume of thousands of flowers wafted on the air.
I was at the Cayeux Iris fields - one of the two most important places/ companies in the world for finding Irises, especially Bearded Iris. There are 600 varieties and the company produces a beautiful mail order catalogue. All the colours of the rainbow were present in the leaves and flower petals plus a very deep black. Dwarfs, intermediates and giants were grouped and there was a small section for other iris too, like the water-loving ones.
You may NOT touch the plants and you are not supposed to sniff them either in case you cross pollinate accidently but you sure can take photos.

These flowers are masterpieces of beauty. You can see a large collection of them on the website .

It was difficult to choose a favourite but I think the one that really caught my eye was the beautiful brown and orange bicolour iris pictured at left.

One hundred years have gone into the breeding of them by the Cayeux family who are based not far brom Blois and Orleans in the Loire district, in a town called Gien which also houses a museum of the hunt in the chateau. There's also a museum of pottery-making from this area.

 The Museum of the Hunt contains some very interesting pieces: old rifles and other fire-arms from the 18th and 19th centuries, ammunition belts, a stuffed wild boar, nasty-looking traps which would take a man's legs off. Naturally hunting dogs featured big-time in the displays though usually only in paintings and engravings. There were hunting horns and artworks, gloves and jackets, as well as equipment used in falconry. I don't imagine the birds enjoyed being trussed up like that and wearing silly helmets with plumes on top- what self-respecting creature would.

  I didn't like the paintings of trained birds of prey being used to bring down other, gentler birds. Hunting is such a French tradition still but becoming less and less popular. Most of the hunting club members are my age or older. The hunting museum is located inside the chateau de Gien but most of the chateau is not open to the public. I suspect it's mostly empty. A lot of money and effort needs to be spent on preserving all this history in France and these days there just isn't the money to go around - no matter the worthy cause.
Gien is worth a visit. It's on the banks of the Loire river and has a picturesque bridge or too. I liked the old one in the middle of the poppyfields.