An Unexpected World Record Holder in Rio
By Bruce Northam

"Your hometown makes you think of silly things, New York City makes you talk of them… and Rio makes you do them." - an unofficial Rio street-crossing guard.

rio beach
Flickr photo by xymoxi

Often, it seems like the poor people know their place better than the rich ones circling for parking spots. Copacabana meets the terms of classic beach resort-zone calculus: every block removed from the beachfront means compounding five percent price discounts and five percent decreases in predictability—reality sets in. So I kept walking…

Rio de Janeiro, an urban zone infused with lush tropical foliage, is a metro area of 14 million Cariocans divided into four districts in an area larger than New York City's five boroughs. It is typically known for its beaches on the city limits southern edge. But there is more…Rio enjoys 46 miles of oceanfront, but most visitors only see the southern edge's famous four-mile crescent strip that is Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon—sunbathing beachfront doubling as a volleyball training center and a thong runway.

Rio favela Flickr photo by anthony goto

As opposed to being a tourist, I propose traveling as a poorist—gravitating to each country's impoverished regions, because that's often where the real fun hides. This sort of roaming is a lateral breed of responsible tourism, one that leaves money in the neediest pockets, not the greediest. Spending time and cash in poor neighborhoods helps sustain them better than some of the bloated nonprofit organizations trickling their minimal percentages back to the needy.

Nearly one-quarter of Brazil's population lives rent-free in favelas, ramshackle cubicle communities that are custom-built on previously unclaimed land. The squatters in Rio's favelas don't perceive their neighborhoods as slums, because many of them border, and tower over, high-rent zones and enjoy prized bird's-eye views of the magnificent, undulating cityscape. Like waterfalls defying gravity, these mountain-hugging, beehive-ish colonies crawl up narrow valleys behind posh neighborhoods, and thus have better views of the ocean-hugging city—the equivalent of shantytowns overshadowing Malibu.

Traditionally detached from the government, these self-policing neighborhoods eventually became independent states. Although still odes to free enterprise, they are integrating with society. Sort of. Favelas are typically named after a street that passes through them. Residents construct amateur, construction-codeless, brick and concrete compartments atop existing compartments. Penthouse rooftop decks endure until other apartments are built upon them. Often arranged in expanding concentric circles, some clusters rise as high as twelve stories. The explanation for why these inadequately constructed cubicle stacks don't tumble down the hilly slopes bears a resemblance to why it's impossible to keel over in a crowded subway. Many of the elaborate fort builders I met there also seemed to have a bit of electrician in them. The haphazard webs of overhead electrical wiring celebrate a free-market energy piracy I'd only witnessed in India.

Diamond in the Rio Rough
One labyrinthine favela maze I explored overflowed with wires, humanity, and talk of the recorde, a word whose meaning was lost on me. Entering this self-sufficient community meant navigating narrow, curving alleyways and improvised hill-climbing steps. Every other corridor had dorm room-sized businesses, including grocery stores, tire repair shops, and beauty salons. As I wove through the maze—high above Rio's twilight buzz—several locals either nodded or pointed me in the same direction while soberly announcing, "recorde."

I knew I was approaching the heralded mystery when a little girl led me by the hand and directed me to turn a corner I'd otherwise have missed. She presented me to an elderly, smiling, bald man who was sitting outside on a small stool and wearing oversized black eyeglass frames without lenses. In the thin man's lap sat a mutt-fusing dachshund, beagle, and seemingly a bit of platypus. They both tilted their heads to the same side and gazed at me.

favela view
Flickr photo by domenicomarchi

"Hello, I am Fabio …" (Silent pause: the elderly man used his fingertips to uniformly elevate both of the dog's droopy ears so they were level with the horizon, and posed them there.) "… and dis is de most loved dog in de world." The man and the great one cocked their heads to the other side.

"Really … how do you know?" I asked.

"Looook at him!" Fabio gushed. He released the dog's ears and began petting his head, each backstroke temporarily widening both sets of their eyes. The dog didn't seem to be thrown by its fame, but Fabio certainly was. Simultaneous with appreciating that recorde is Portuguese for record, I petted the tail-wagging icon while surveying Fabio. A treasure near the end of a chapter in his existence, Fabio was glowing with the surety that his amazing partner goes unrivaled for adoration on the planet. No doubt a sainted hero among these hillside dwellers, he adjusted his windowless eyeglasses, flashed a calendar-resistant grin, and hummed, "World record."

I wasn't the first wanderer led to this reputable duo. But, like a perfect song, they intrigue and charm every time. After an hour of celebrity worship, and just before spinning on my heel to stride downhill through the mesh of cables, uneven steps, and passages leading back onto the paved street mainstream, a final question for Fabio, "What is your dog's name?"

"Recorde," he winked, and then re-elevated Recorde's ears in tribute to their bond. It's within us all to set our own records—we can't all be the most loved, but we can certainly love the most.

Who's Walking Who?
Recorde tugged a heartstring belonging to a beagle named Ben, my companion beginning in 1976 when he was presented as an abandoned puppy at my front door after being found near railroad tracks by a neighbor. I thank him, a long-legged beagle/mutt for some important life lessons, for instance: your territory extends far beyond your yard.

Flickr photo by elainevigneault

You don't train beagles, they train you. Once a month, certain wayward males flee on two-day no-look-back female dog hunts. For the first year of Ben's monthly disappearing act, my family panicked, roaming the neighborhood day and night, calling his name and interviewing people walking their dogs (on a leash?). As the years passed, a pattern emerged. He always came back, albeit exhausted, to collapse on the kitchen floor for a world record nap. Soon after, Ben would turn back into an enviable pet—nobody could pass him without stooping to share love.

When it was announced in 2008 that a beagle won the Westminster Dog Show for the first time since 1939, I sensed the universe sharing my enthusiasm.

Ben also helped me understand how standard education sometimes backfires. Ben, in fenced-in yard mode, occasionally refused to come into the house upon request. Training him to come inside for a treat soon flopped because he figured out that rushing back outside again created another treat cycle. Improvisation has its rewards.

A Buddhist kōan is an anecdote, question, or statement that typically eludes rational understanding but is within reach of intuition. Kōan traditions try to shock the mind into awareness. In the Zen novel The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac asks, "Does a dog have Buddha nature or not?" … "Woof".

Bruce Northam is the author of Globetrotter Dogma. See his travel video series at American

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I Was a Thai Travel Trinket by Darrin DuFord
Pirate Chic by Bruce Northam

Other South America travel stories from the Archives

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