I was very excited to visit Rio for the first time this month, courtesy of SEBRAE, an organisation supporting entrepreneurship in Brazil who have organised a Brazilian Fair Trade Conference and Fair.
On my trip from the airport to my hotel, I was astonished at the greenery of the city and equally surprised by my ability to hold a conversation with my driver in Portuguese after listening to a dozen last-minute podcasts before departure, although my Spanish already provides a good basis for the language. My room on the 23rd floor of the Rio Othon Copacabana had incredible views over the beach and Sugar Loaf mountain and a few caipirinhas were definitely called for sitting in the beach bars at night watching the sun set.
I knew that I was speaking on the first day of the conference and arrived at the hotel at 8am expecting to find information for me about the venue and timetable as nothing had been provided beforehand. However, there was no information at the hotel. I finally received a phone call telling me that a car was outside, waited a further half hour for the car to actually materialise, then arrived at the conference centre to find I was on stage immediately I walked through the door!
The Fair Trade fair was fairly small, but the quality of the exhibitors was high and there was an interesting range of products from Fair Trade honey and coffee, through to clothing, jewellery and accessories. On my second day at the fair, I was excited to discover some fascinators made from recycled fabric scraps and recycled bottle tops. After a lot of persuasion, I finally managed to convince the exhibitor to take me to the workshop in the favelas of Rio where the recently formed group met twice a week in order to make recycled fascinators to supplement their income.
A taxi dropped us off in the equivalent of the central reservation of the M25. When we eventually made it across the many lanes of fast moving traffic, I was so excited to discover that the next leg of my journey was to be on the back of a motorbike. It was the best experience I'd had in a long time, whizzing through the backstreets of the favela, no helmet, on the back of a motorbike taxi. The women's group making the fascinators were based in a small room up an alleyway and were so friendly that it immediately made me hope that their product sells as I would love to come back here.
I rummaged through bags of scraps on the floor and eventually sorted out four different seasonal combinations of fabric remnants, to add to the base of the fascinators which are made from recycled bottle top rings wrapped with embroidery thread. Explaining all of the specifications was stretching my limited language knowledge to the maximum, but my Portuguese improved considerably in those few hours, although I still can't remember the translation for the colour grey.
After the three day conference was over, I moved to the Guesthouse Bianca in Santa Teresa, a rather bohemian area of Rio, halfway up a hillside and connected to the centre of town by old trams. The accommodation was fantastic, with my own balcony overlooking Sugar Loaf Mountain and a kitchen to make tea. The nearby restaurant Espírito Santo specialises in fish and seafood and my Tilapia wrapped in collard greens in a banana sauce was some of the best fish I've ever eaten.
Although intending to have a weekend off to explore the city, work impinged on free time, so ended up with two half days. The first I spent ascending Sugar Loaf Mountain by cable car. The day was overcast, but not sufficiently to impede the views and the benefit was that there were no queues and I was at the front of each cable car as I ascended and descended. Walking around the forest at the top of the mountain, I sat for a while on a bench watching the marmosets jumping through the trees above my head.
My second half day was spent at the Ipanema Hippy Market which I had not envisaged attending due to the name but was told on Sunday morning that the quality of the craftsmanship at the market is extremely high. I am a notoriously picky shopper and very rarely buy anything, but came back from my morning in Ipanema with 3 leather belts, a pair of green sandals, a recycled necklace made from vintage gold coloured buttons and the obligatory pair of Havaianas for my daughter. The morning finished with an hour sitting at the end of Ipanema beach, cold beer in hand, listening to Cath Kidston on Desert Island Discs.
Rio surprised me as a city: I just hadn't envisaged how green it would be and also how low-rise in comparison to other Latin American cities. It is a very easy city in which to spend time and I hope very much to return soon… I just need to sell some recycled fascinators first!