01 October 2012

Paquetá Island

Once upon a time, Mark and I were frequent travelers, but for the past six months we have rarely ventured farther than the closest supermarket. Maybe it was encroaching age that was at last taking a toll. Maybe we were feeling that by living in Búzios we were already at the destination. And we sure don't have any business reason for going anywhere anymore. So why subject ourselves to all that airport unpleasantness and all that road rage? Last week, though, we decided to scratch the one little travel itch we have felt of late. We took advantage of a long overdue resupply and stock-up visit to Rio (two and a half hours to our west) to make a day excursion to a tiny little island called Paquetá up near the northern shores of Guanabara Bay. Paquetá is nowhere near as close to the consciousness of Rio residents as, say, Staten Island is to the consciousness of Manhattan residents. Still, there is something provocative in the mere anomalousness of this little dot on the waters. So we went.

And you know what turned out to be really really nice? The ride out and the ride back. Now I had my share of Staten Island Ferry dates back in my college days, especially when the ferry ride cost a mere nickel and my dates, also students, were badly strapped for cash. The late-night trip to Staten Island and back is fabulous. But this Paquetá ride? You pass right alongside the strangely greenish wedding cake architecture on the so-called Fiscal Island. You pass under the monumental Rio-Niteroí bridge. You thread between hulking containerships waiting to load and unload cargo at the port of Caju. And if you return, as we did, to downtown Rio at dusk, take care, because your heart just might soar. Dusk turns to sunset and then dark. The lights of the business district are all atwinkle, the Christ Redeemer Statue atop Corcovado is ablaze, Sugarloaf is alight, the brightly-lighted ferries to and from Niteroí cross back and forth in front of you, aircraft comes in to Santos Dumont Airport so close that you can smell the jet fuel. Spectacular.

A scorching 45 C in Rio (113 F!)
And our day on the island? It can't be held against Paquetá that we visited on what was reportedly the hottest day of the year here in southeastern Brazil. After all, who would even suspect that you would have something called "the hottest day of the year" in winter? We ended up spending most of our time in the garden of the Casa de Artes drinking bottled water in the shade and sucking on olives and mopping our brows. That had not been our original plan. We had planned to take full advantage of this car-free island and rent bikes to go exploring. But the people who did rent bikes also wound up in the garden of the Casa de Artes and they drank more water than we did.

The invitingly shaded Casa de Artes

The famous bird cemetery on Paquetá
Toward the end of the afternoon, we took a pedal taxi (slightly motorized, actually) as far as the world's only known bird cemetery. Strange place to find oneself. We walked along a couple of the civilized-looking beaches. If they get the pollution in Guanabara Bay cleaned up in time for the Olympics in 2016, maybe people will be able to swim at them again. We looked at the pretty historic houses. We repeated over and over how smart we had been not to have packed a bag and looked for some place to check in. The lodgings on offer were grandiose in name (the Palace Hotel, the Hotel Lido) but short on comfort. The glory of this little island is that there's nothing to do there. But that's also the problem. There's nothing to do there. So what's worse? What the Americans would do with such a place at the edge of a major population center — a Travelodge here, a Starbucks there, a TGIF down the way? Or what the Brazilians do, which is nothing?

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