Pouring rain on a park

Photo © Michael Sommers.

When most people (myself included) conjure up Rio de Janeiro, the images that come to mind are inevitably sun-drenched beach scenes backed by luminous blue skies. However, Rio does get its share of rain (how else to explain the lushness of all those mountains?) – and, inevitably, when it rains in Rio, it often pours.

Such has been the case this week as the city and surrounding state have found themselves inundated by record rainfalls. In the 24-hour span between Monday and Tuesday (April 5-6), Rio has found itself dealing with historic volumes of water that haven’t been seen since the 1960s. As of Thursday morning (April 8), over 150 people have died as a result of the rains – 46 in the capital alone.

Almost all the deaths affected people whose precarious homes were built (illegally) on morros (hilltops) such as that of the ironically baptized Morro dos Prazeres (Hill of Pleasures), located in the picturesque bairro of Santa Teresa, where 15 people were killed due to fatal mud slides that caused houses to collapse and residents to be buried alive. Meanwhile, over 3,200 people throughout the state are permanently or temporarily homeless due to dwellings that collapsed, are in danger of collapsing, or are flooded.

In keeping with tradition, the rains have inaugurated yet another round in “the blame game.”
Indeed, the flooding is a whole other issue that results in chaos – along with some surreal images. The flooding of the Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, for example, whose waters invaded the posh neighborhoods of Jardim Botânico and Leblon, brought the sight of swan-shaped pedal-boats floating along thoroughfares. Equally striking, but less benign, were the images of floating and abandoned cars and people stranded in homes surrounded by sudden moats. Airports, Metro stations, and highways were shut down and public schools and universities remain closed. Rio’s Mayor Eduardo Paes has urged residents to stay home if they can to avoid accidents.

In keeping with tradition, the rains have inaugurated yet another round in “the blame game.” President Lula, who was in town on Monday, evoked the incompetence of previous governments who allowed the city to expand without responsible urban planning. Rio’s Governor, Sergio Cabral, was more direct: he placed the blame squarely at the feet of the poor who choose to illegally invade dangerous hillsides and build homes there. As for the mayor, he chalked it all up to Mother Nature, optimistically adding that the repercussions of the record rainfall have (so far) been far less worse than storms that, in 1966, devastated the city.

Although Rio’s rains have received plenty of international coverage – with everyone from The New York Times to Al Jazeera reporting on the catastrophe – it’s important to note that, give or take a few inches, such rains – and the attendant flooding, landslides, homelessness and death – take place every year in Rio and many other Brazilian cities such as São Paulo.

In terms of flooding, while the public routinely faults the government for failure to adequately expand and modernize drainage systems that were designed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the government accuses residents of irresponsibly tossing litter in the streets, which subsequently clogs up grates and drains.

I experienced Rio’s flooding firsthand during a trip I made to the city last summer. Arriving in the morning to a mere drizzle, I took a bus from Tom Jobim International Airport to Centro
and decided to kill time by visiting some of downtown’s many museums and cultural centers, with pauses at century-old, belle epoque cafés such as Confeitaria Colombo and Casa Cavé – an ideal way to while away a rainy day in the city.

When, at around 2pm, the drizzle turned to downpour, I merely bought a cheap guarda-chuva from one of the many umbrella street vendors that had miraculously sprung up, and continued with my sightseeing, coffee-guzzling, and pastry-sampling. Since I was spending the night at a pousada in the adjacent hillside neighborhood of Santa Teresa – only a 10-minute tram ride away on a charming wooden bonde (tram), I was feeling pretty nonchalant.

When I finally waded my way to the bonde station at around 5pm, a group of damp Cariocas were waiting for a tram – which failed to arrive, despite the fact that the group got bigger (and damper), not to mention more impatient. Of course, the man in the bonde booth had absolutely no news about the state of the bondes and refused to call and find out. Eventually, the situation escalated into a dramatic (but also somewhat humorous) conflict between some irate passengers – who hoped that the publicly-owned (and hugely inefficient) bonde concessionary would be privatized causing everyone to lose their jobs – and the publicly-employed bonde functionary, who shut the ticket booth and refused to talk to any of us. (As a result, conspiracy theorists imagined that the employees were purposely not running the trams as revenge for having insulted the public sector – however, as I discovered the next day, the bonde’s electrical lines had been shorted out by the rain).

Things became more complicated when I waded through the major avenues of Centro in search of a taxi. By then the gutters, and some of the streets, had become rivers. Not an empty taxi was to be found – even though I (like many others) spent over an hour trying to flag one down in vain (getting quite soaked in the process due to cars speeding by). Through inquiries made with damp, but very friendly Cariocas, I realized that my attempts to hail a cab would prove futile. So following some advice, I made made my way to Lapa, where I was told that I could catch a municipal microbus bound for Santa Teresa.

Of course, the bus was out of service as well (or seemed to be – nobody knew for sure). Fortunately, two women were also waiting for the bus and they decided to walk up to Santa Teresa – when I asked if I could tag along, they amicably asked me to join them. Both were black and middle-aged and quite friendly. As we climbed the steep, very scenic, and seemingly never-ending road that led up to Santa Teresa, they shared stories about lousy husbands, rotten lovers, and ungrateful kids that certainly made the long and difficult climb much more enjoyable.

Aside from the fact that I was bogged down with luggage, the uneven cobblestones, while picturesque, did not make for easy walking – especially in flip flops (in order to spare my one pair of sneakers and socks the ordeal of being completely soaked, I had changed into a pair of Havaianas). Moreover, the flooded road made the ascent feel like wading upstream through a shallow river.

One thing I’ve never got the hang of is how Brazilians manage to walk through the rain in flip flops. My two new walking pals managed the feat with spectacular ease. However, I exhibited much less prowess – at intervals of around every 100 meters, one of my flip flops would inevitably, and embarrassingly, slide off my foot , forcing me to backtrack, barefoot, down the hill, to recuperate it. Each time this occurred, my cohorts patiently stopped and waited for me to re-shoe myself. They must have thought: “What the hell are we doing with this gringo?”

By the time, we got to the top of the hill, it was 9pm and practically dark. After the two women made sure that I knew where I was going, the three of us parted ways. I was exhausted, and it was still raining – but when I recall it now, the whole experience was actually kind of fun.