Last updated: 11:52 AM ET, Tue November 10 2015

Dispatch: Approaching the Unapproachable in Rio

Destination & Tourism | David Cogswell | November 10, 2015

Dispatch: Approaching the Unapproachable in Rio

PHOTO: From Room 1109 at the Arena Copacabana Hotel overlooking Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. (Photo by David Cogswell)

Flying from Porto Alegre, Brazil, to Rio de Janeiro I am immersed in my book, building to the wild climax of Part One of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” an insane scenario playing out in my mind to a soundtrack of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, and suddenly the pilot’s voice comes over the loudspeaker.

I don’t understand Portuguese, but I know the drill: be sure your seat backs are forward and your tray tables are in their upright and locked position because we are entering our final descent into Rio.

We’ve been flying over a thick cloud cover from the anomalous El Niño-influenced rain system that has southern Brazil feeling like winter in spring. But of course the weather is crazy everywhere now. As we descend into the clouds we are enveloped in whiteness. Then the land starts to appear below, deep green expanses with winding rivers, patches of development becoming denser as we approach the city.

After we have dipped below the top layer of clouds there are still more layers of misty condensation between us and the land below. Black mountains become visible, their tops shrouded in fluffy clouds, and the Atlantic Ocean comes into view.

Then there is a grinding, groaning sound throughout the plane and my stomach turns as the plane lurches upward again and the pilot recovers for a second approach, heightening the drama. And there it is: Rio! There is the giant bay that Amerigo Vespucci named the River of January. And there is Rio! Ever larger than life. Fabulous Rio. Oh my God! Did someone put LSD in my coffee this morning?

It can never be fully comprehended. Like an ant on the Empire State Building I accept my lot as a limited mortal wishing to somehow take in this immortal city, to somehow fully experience it, but knowing I never can fully grasp it. It is far beyond me. It dwarfs me.

Then down and down and down and there is the runway, and we are on the ground, on a runway much like any runway. We pull up to the jetway and it creeps toward us, a little ragged rug on its front edge, looking, again, like any jetway at any airport. We walk to the baggage carousel, find our suitcases and head toward the outdoors. Gradually the generic airport features start to give way to traces of the place itself.

Rio. The people of Rio. They are different than in other places. They are dark, graceful, exotic, funky. They exude that Rioculousness. They are Cariocas, and they are the only people in the world who are Cariocas. And they know it. They wear it with smooth confidence. They are at the center of the universe.

We approach the taxi stand and get paired with a bright red taxi with a red license plate that says “Rio de Janeiro.” Everything is legendary, larger than life. Though it is cloudy today, it is warm. There are palm trees even at the airport exit.

We pile our suitcases into the trunk and pile our bodies into the cab headed toward our hotel overlooking Copacabana Beach. The driver is playing bouncy accordion music on his radio, Brazilan choro music, as he winds through traffic, often veering only inches from other vehicles in a traffic chaos that seems impossible. The city unfolds before us. There is Corcovado, the great peak with Christ the Redeemer on top, his arms open wide. We drive by the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon, the site of "the largest floating Christmas tree in the world" and the place where sprint and rowing competitions will take place during the 2016 Olympics.

Then we turn onto Avenida Atlantica and we are driving along the one and only Copacabana Beach. We pull up to our hotel, the Arena Copacabana, unload and walk into the lobby. We see two dark haired women who must be royalty, or perhaps supermodels or celebrities. But no, they are only the desk clerks of the hotel. This kind of sublime grace and beauty is normal in Rio. No one bats an eye.

I am assigned a room on the 11th floor and up I go. I slip my card key into the slot, open the door and there I am, looking into my room, and beyond it, through the picture window, at Copacabana Beach. As I walk into the room, my flatscreen is tuned into a "Jazz Classico" station, softly playing an old Stan Goetz track. They did this just for me.

It is really all too much. Just way too much. Rio. We will look at venues for the 2016 Summer Olympics, and scope out preparations for the event. We’ll check out restaurants, maybe take in a soccer game, hear some music. We’ll busy ourselves with our normal, human preoccupations, business and such. But we’ll never be able to take it all in, not really, not fully. You can only take in your little piece of it, your tiny human square, limited in space and time. Rio is forever.

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