I hadn’t come to Brazil to die. At least, not like this.
However, as the locally labelled “motor taxi” continued to dance with death on the cobbled one-way streets leading up the terraneous hill to Santa Teresa, I couldn’t help but wonder if this might just be it. I dug my nails in, bracing myself not only for the possibility, but also quite literally in an attempt to keep myself glued to the bike.
Machismo isn’t quite dead in Rio de Janeiro, but it was certainly absent on that humid afternoon when my motor taxi driver decided to keep the one helmet to himself, coaxing me toward the bike and chuckling, “Não precisa” — unneeded. At the time it had seemed a pretty acceptable mode of transport up the oscillating roads, blind corners aplenty, but, somehow, everyone had failed to mention the reality. “It’ll be fun,” they had said. “Quick, too.”
We started slowly, the movement lulling me into a false sense of security until suddenly a fellow motor taxi driver bypassed us, the raucous friend of my driver. They began to shout to each other, laughing, accelerating, and skidding over the uneven stones. Throw a couple of cars and buses into the mix and imagine us all there, together, sandwiched with an inch between the houses and the next heated vehicle beside us. Heading toward a blind corner or death, I didn’t know. I squeezed my eyes shut — the only way I could make it around the bends. Horns beeped furiously and wheels screeched in chaos — in relation to what exactly, I couldn’t tell you.
My body was thrust backward and forward as the bike stuttered, struggling to combat the incline of the hill. Eventually, we had to concede to an oncoming Kombi, the old Volkswagen camper vans that also transport people up the hill. For the Kombi, we were no match, and our fellow competing motor taxi had also been lost somewhere along the way. The competition was dead, and for this, I was grateful.
It seemed as though we had been winding endlessly on the road for hours, though, realistically, the whole escapade had probably only lasted seven or eight minutes. By the time we reached the top of the hill, my body was frozen, rigid in bike-survival mode. My motor taxi driver grinned devilishly, and I handed him five reais before he scuttled off, ready to terrorize the next unassuming rider. No wonder this method was cheap.
As I surveyed the streets around me, I was immediately enchanted by Santa Teresa, known as the bohemian neighbourhood of Rio de Janeiro. Artists and musicians alike flock to the quaint alleyways: coloured shutters lined the streets, lampposts were adorned in posters and paint. Colonial houses in pastel hues were wedged between restaurants and bars, al fresco and accompanied by potted plants. Along the main street you could see the “bonde,” a yellow tram that runs to and from the Arches of Lapa making its way to the main station. It halted, and a handful of people spilled out onto the street.
I strolled a little, for in Brazil there is no concept of time, a concept itself which feels emphasized by the altitude in Santa Teresa. It is removed from the hustle and bustle of downtown Rio, a calmer vantage point from above. I walked over to a ledge and took a second to lean out, almost fully recovered from my transportation ordeal. If there was one thing I could definitively affirm, it is that whichever way you choose to get to Santa Teresa — the view is simply spectacular.
In fact, it might even be worth a motor taxi ride or two.