Feeling nervous, I climb onto the back of a motorcycle driven by a man I have never met before. He hands me a sweaty helmet worn by countless prior passengers and before I’ve had time to completely fasten it, we’re zooming up the hill. We pass little kids playing soccer – excuse me, futebol (pronounced foo-chee-bowl) – in flip-flops and swim trunks; we pass dogs digging through ripped trash bags, a barber blasting Brazilian funk music and subtly dancing as he styles peoples’ hair. We drive past a colorful mural commissioned by the city and even more vibrant graffiti commissioned by anyone who cares. We motor past houses stacked on top of each other with colorful laundry lines hanging outside of windows and as many other motorcycles and vans as my driver can get by without crashing. All the while, I am frozen with fear and exhilarated by the surroundings. After twisting and turning up the hill for what seems like an eternity, the driver comes to a sudden halt. I pay him, and he speeds away. After regaining my land legs, I head behind a house to find the trail and start my hike. One humid, tropical and bug-filled hour later, I have reached one of the most beautiful views I will ever see. Below me lies the glittering sea and the marvelous and confusing city of Rio de Janeiro – that has been my home for the past four and a half months.

Rio de Janeiro is a city of paradoxes. I am constantly confronted by beauty pitted against grime, concrete jungle versus the real jungle, dramatic mountains juxtaposed against the smooth ocean, rich racial diversity against strong racial prejudice and an intricate and complicated history in contrast with an intense focus toward a clean future image. During the walk from my apartment to my university for the semester, Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio de Janeiro (PUC-Rio), I see the largest urban forest in the world on one side and construction sites and road repairs preparing the city for the 2014 World Cup on the other. On the beach, people seem impossibly comfortable with their bodies, flaunting all kinds of figures in itty-bitty bikinis and thongs in public – I have seen first-hand why this country has one of the highest rates of cosmetic surgery in the world.

In the most public manifestations of internal conflicts, politicians in Rio de Janeiro contradict themselves. In a talk organized by Columbia Global Centers, I witnessed Eduardo Paes, mayor of Rio de Janeiro, claim to have the working man and favela resident’s interests in mind in his development plan for the city through building affordable housing in the urban center. Meanwhile, he is attributed to have said that he wanted to be the Pereira Passos of this century – a politician who focused on destruction of tenement housing – and Paes’ administration has carried out thousands of forced evictions and resettlements to develop for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics. Such actions have torn favela residents away from their communities and distanced them from their jobs in order to place them in shoddily built government housing projects. For the past few months, I have been steeped in these contradictions. At times I have been angered and disturbed, yet, increasingly in the recent months, comforted.

At the beginning of this semester, my favorite weekend activity was the crazy ride up and the view down from the heights of Dois Irmãos. All of the contradictions are mollified when seen from above, and the city becomes a coherent unit rather than a bunch of puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit together. From up there, I can see where Rocinha, the largest favela in South America, and Leblon, one of the most expensive neighborhoods in Latin America, merge. Meanwhile, they seem worlds apart when seen from the ground. But real life isn’t so black and white and trying to classify and quantify a place like Rio de Janeiro, or anywhere else in the world, won’t get you very far. People are ambiguous everywhere. We contradict ourselves all the time no matter where we are. Living in Rio has helped me observe the inconsistencies around me but also become more aware of the ways I contradict myself. I have grown to appreciate all the different paradoxes of the city and root them out. So, at the end of the day, though I will never get over the striking view of the city from above, I am happy to head back down the mountain and face this colorful, tragic and exciting city eye to eye.

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