An Olympic journey and family reunion in Rio

When Rio de Janeiro was named a finalist city for the 2016 Olympic Games, I was filled with anticipation and excitement. As a long time member of NBC’s Olympic production team, I knew that the city’s selection could be my first opportunity to revisit my grandfather’s sister’s family, who I had not seen since I was in my teens.

The author, his sister, and his Brazilian family, circa 1970s

Sure enough, in 2009, Rio was awarded the 2016 games, and the planning began in earnest, mentally, and finally, physically. I was able to reconnect two years ago with my second cousin Eduardo through the magic of Facebook. The last time I had seen him he was in diapers. He told me that his parents, Estelio and Celia, were well, as was his sister Renata, who was a toddler the last time I had seen her.

The author, his wife and his Brazilian family, present day

Early in 2016, NBC Olympics offered me a position as an editor and replay operator for Beach Volleyball and asked if I would be interested. Of course!

I was also able to bring over my wife, Dina, who was excited to join me for part of the adventure.

Months before the Games, Eduardo was helpful with information about what to bring (and not bring), what to wear (don’t wear jewelry in public), where to eat (and drink the best caipirinhas), and how we could connect while Dina and I were in Rio.

I had heard a plethora of stories about the Zika Virus. (I presoaked all my garments in the insecticide Pyrethrin in order to avoid the disease-ridden mosquitoes). Also, like everyone else, I read about the rampant crime and the area’s favelas (slums).

My Pyrethrin Tree – Pre-soaked clothes left out to dry in my backyard

The beachfront (touristy) area of Rio is made up of two intersecting arcs. One arc is Copacabana beach, and it connects with the other arc, Ipanema beach. My accommodations were in Copacabana, not far from Estelio, Celia, Renata and her family. Eduardo and his family live in Barra, home of the Olympic Park, and about an hour’s Uber ride (if traffic cooperates) away. Uber, by the way, is omnipresent in Brazil, and is much cheaper than in the U.S. The advantage of Uber in a foreign country is you don’t need to speak the language in order to use it. I can’t tell you how much confusion I experienced using taxis in Beijing during the 2008 Olympics.

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Fortunately, my cousins were generous with transportation, providing cabs and car rides. We enjoyed dinners together, exchanged gifts, and I was fortunate enough to get to know their young children, who referred to me as “the cousin who speaks English.” We marveled in how our cultures and lives were different, but that our heritage was the same.

It was amazing to hear stories about my grandfather, his brother and sister (who were the ones to settle in Brazil), and other members of the family.

I only wish that someday I can return the favor here.

I was able to enjoy many of the sights and experiences Rio has to offer both before and after Dina’s arrival. The area is beautiful, and we took advantage of many of the usual tourist attractions:

  • Sugar Loaf — A beautiful mountain that overlooks Copacabana and most of Rio, Sugar Loaf is a must-visit for all first-timers to Rio. You can shop and dine with expansive overlooks of the city and beaches. It only is reachable by cable car. I suggest you go at sunset to see the beautiful colors of the city and shores at twilight and stay for the lit-up city at night.
  • Copacabana Beach from Sugar Loaf, Olympic Beach Volleyball Arena in the foreground
  • Corcovado — Another mountain, this one on the Ipanema side and home of the humongous Christ the Redeemer statue, Corcovado is another can’t-miss attraction. Besides housing the enormous statue itself, Corcovado also has amazing views of the area. You can drive most of the way up the mountain yourself, but parking can be scarce, and you need to hire a van (tickets can be purchased in the large visitors’ center and gift shop) to get to the top. We took an Uber to the visitors center, where we shopped for souvenirs and bought our van tickets.
  • The author and wife, atop Corcovado, with Sugar Loaf in the distance
  • The beaches — Copacabana and Ipanema are beautiful and clean. Spacious, tiled walkways line each beach and are the home of walkers, runners, skaters, bicyclists and shoppers. Souvenir hawkers line the beaches (listen for their whistles), and that’s where you can find bargains on lower-end items. Every 100 feet or so you can find a beach bar, where Rio’s famous caipirinhas are sold. These adult drinks are made primarily by combining the Brazilian liquor cachaça with mashed-up limes and sugar. During our mile-long walk to work each day of the Olympics, my colleagues referred to as the walkway as the Caipirinha Highway. The “highway” also features some nice restaurants, with great views of the beach.
  • The Botanical Garden — I am not a big fan of gardens, but my Brazilian cousins talked me and my wife into accompanying them to Rio’s beautiful Botanical Garden. Opened in 1808, the garden was part of a research project made by the country’s ruling Portuguese founders. Admire the diverse plant species, as well as many historic buildings.
  • The Botanical Garden
  • “The Girl from Ipanema” — You know the song. It was written by the songwriting team of Antônio Carlos (Tom) Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes (whose namesakes, Tom and Vinicius, were the Olympic mascots). The Grammy-award-winning song actually was written in Ipanema, and their meeting place is now a restaurant called Garota de Ipanema (you can guess the translation). I ate there twice and admired both the cuisine and the decor, which commemorates the song and the musical duo.
  • Nightlife — My cousin introduced me to a variety of caipirinhas by taking me to the popular Academy of Cachaça, where I sampled a variety of caipirinhas made with limes, pineapples, and my favorite, passion fruit, and ate a delicious Brazilian meal. I had to return there to introduce my wife to this gem after she arrived. My other favorite place was an area of Rio called Lapa. On weekends, as well as some weekdays, Lapa is an all-night party that starts at sunset. There are dozens of nightclubs, restaurants and bars, many of which feature outdoor seating, right along the sidewalks. In fact, the bars seem to blend into each other, making for one huge party. And when you’re done partying, you can stumble a few blocks away to the:
  • Escadaria Selaron — Informally known as the “Lapa Steps,” this is a hidden gem located not far from the bars. In fact, after dark, the steps become part of the nightlife, a hangout for what can seem to be hundreds of partiers, lounging on the steps, smoking and talking after a long evening’s celebration. By day, the steps are an escalating, mosaic work of art that leads from Lapa uphill to the Santa Teresa neighborhood. Be sure to enjoy the Escadaria in both settings.
  • Historic Arches at Lapa
  • Tour a favela — Yes. Really. Take a guided tour of one of Rio’s hundreds of slums.
    Santa Marta favela

    Now, I would not recommend you step foot in one of them without a guide. There are several safer favelas that feature on-site police stations. The safer ones also are the homes of poor people who really want to do better for themselves and their children. They subsidize improvements in education and housing by allowing tour groups to find hidden beauty in the poverty and allow them to understand what life is like in the community.

    Mural at Santa Marta – Beauty in poverty

    Our guided tour of the Santa Marta favela lasted about two hours, and we got to meet some of the residents of the impoverished neighborhood. We also visited a statue of pop legend Michael Jackson that commemorates his filming in 1996 of the music video for “They Don’t Care About Us.”

View of Rio from Santa Marta

Besides the usual and unusual in and around Rio, my wife and I chose to conclude our vacation by taking a side trip to the seaside town of Búzios. About a two-and-a-half hour ride from the beaches, Búzios was a sleepy fishing village until the 1960s, when French actress Brigitte Bardot chose to make it her vacation destination. Now the upscale area is brimming with shopping, dining, hotels and, of course, beautiful beaches. The bus ride and accompanying boat ride along the Brazilian coast made for a great side trip.

Well, we survived it all, Zika-free, and I won a Sports Emmy for my work on NBC’s technical team for the Olympic games.

The author and colleagues at Escadaria Selaron

We had a great time, and, most importantly, I was able to reconnect with a beautiful city and a beautiful family. I can’t wait until our children are old enough to go there.

Mark Pokedoff

Four-time Emmy-award-winning television sports production specialist and frequent traveler. Longtime freelance writer and travel blog enthusiast. Proud papa of four amazing kids who have been upgraded to first class more than all their friends combined. Read more of Mark's articles here.

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