Blame it on Eyjafjallajökull, not Rio

Sanjay Kapoor

For almost a week in April, millions of people around the world struggled to pronounce Iceland's fiery Eyjafjallajökull volcano and also understand how long its eruption, which had grounded most of the international flights intersecting Europe and the Atlantic, would botch up their travel plans. As the ash from this volcano reached high heavens, serious questions were raised about air safety and future global travel. Early reports in the media based on expert opinion sketched a doomsday scenario about months of air disruption over Europe and how clueless the governments were in handling this natural crisis.

 I was one of those who happened to be on the wrong side of the globe in a paradise called Rio De Janiero -- 15,000 kilometers away from dusty, hot Delhi. Rio popped up on my travel itiernary after attending an Editor's Forum meeting in Brazil's capital Brasilia -- a city stylistically designed by famous town planner and Le Carbusier's collaborator, 102-year-old Oscar Niemeyer. The plan was to spend couple of days in Rio before heading home. Barely a few hours into Rio and the Eyjafjallajökull impact became clearly visible. Flights out of Rio were being canceled and there was little clarity about when they would take off again. Before we could slip into serious panic about our return, a quiet assurance came from our ministry of external affairs and our embassy in Brasilia that we would not be abandoned and efforts would be made to fly us out at the earliest. This calmed us. 

With the cloud of uncertainty lifting from our heads, Rio's bewitching natural beauty of glorious, unending beaches framed together with a freakish looking Sugar Loaf Mountain, beckoned us. Rio is a city that seems to be on permanent vacation, if, as a tourist, you choose to hang out at its beaches: Copacabana and Ipanema. Cariocas or people of Rio show great pride in displaying their bodies and many of them can be found even walking bare feet on the road leading to the beaches. On weekends, it seems, as if the entire city converges at its beaches to play beach volleyball or frolic on the fluffy and clean sand. The levity of this place is so intoxicating that gargantuan problems that faced the world and us seemed so surreal and distant. Michael Caine cannot be faulted for 'Blaming it on Rio' for his philandering in the movie. 

However, the festive air of the city could be misleading. The Marvelous city (Cidade Marvilhosa), as cariocas like to call Rio, has a disturbingly dark side. As you step out to the Samba hangout of Lapa you are cautioned to play safe. I leave my watch and purse and head out into the dark night. It is a typical Friday night in Lapa where people of different ideological and sexual proclivities can be seen drinking, mostly, till the early hours of the morning. Transvestites, people wearing funny costumes, vendors add to this medley of light, colour and noise. In this carefree environment where moving hips create their own narrative on the sound of music, it is possible to see armed policemen with their fingers on the trigger looking hard at stragglers and those who are not participating in this raucous merriment. There are armed vehicles with the fearful snout of the gun sticking out of the windows whiz pass. As one walks past the Lapa's famous aqueduct towards its many bars, it is possible to feel angry eyes staring behind you from shadows . These men stand from the periphery stoned by drugs, hunger or deprivation. For many, these people constitute the threat that can puncture celebration and upper class stability. 

Their rage is visible in the amazingly bold graffiti on the ancient walls of Lapa. Such graffitis are a feature of Rio and a country racked by its phenomenal class divide. "Why do you have so much graffiti art all around?" I ask my articulate driver. "This is a way for people to express themselves in a way that may not get the approval of the authorities," he explains.

Although our return flight plan to India acquires certitude as we by-pass the route compromised by Iceland ash, for many people of Rio grounded by poverty it seems as if the impact of Eyjafjallajökull never really left them.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2010

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