Sometimes, and that’s one of bitterest moments in life, you learn the importance of something only when that something gets taken away from you. As an introduction, I know, this is more worthy of a whingey Taylor Swift song than of a travel blog post, but if I had to depict the mood lingering above the sunny street of Santa Teresa, it’s the image of a mournful pop singer who’s just lost her loved one that I’d use.
In terms of their approach to mobility, the cariocas – or Rio de Janeiro inhabitants – have much in common with those of Istanbul or of the many Chinese megalopolises, where cars are the new symbol of success and drivers feel entitled to own the roads. In this universe of motorways sprouting like mushrooms, the old public transport is either neglected or side-lined, barely tolerated by a generation of motorists that have happily swapped the plastic bus seat for the fake leather and air conditioning of their Fiats or Chevrolets.
High rises and fast-moving traffic: the face of the new Brazil
It is somehow strange, given this premises, to see imagine a downtown neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro is mourning the loss of a narrow gauge tramway line, called bonde, which took place almost 5 years ago, but this is precisely what has happened.
Santa Teresa is a borough nestled on one of the many hills overlooking Centro, Rio’s oldest neighbourhood. Its rough-and-tumble reputation means that most of the camera-toting tourists’ elect to stop at the brilliant Escadaria Selarón, leaving the maze of winding roads, colonial buildings and bars to the locals. There’s a whiff of gentrification in the air, with a sprucing of indie-looking bars serving organic juices and free trade tea, but the heaps of rubbish and the many homeless – as well as the patrolling police cars, automatic rifles peeking out of the lowered windows – give away the impression that this ain’t no East Berlin yet.
The bonde started life as an aqueduct.
The tram drawn on the wall of a local restaurant.
Santa Teresa and Lapa are Rio’s answer to London’s East End… only rougher.
Detail of the Escadaria Selarón.
Colonial homes huddled on top of Santa Teresa’s hill.
Only locals are around.
Walking the Santa Teresa streets, past the restaurants, ready-for-war cops and murales, the visitor’s eye is bound to be caught by an ubiquitous logo: plastered on walls, hanging from balconies, taped on windows and stuck on the bumpers of parked car, here is the silhouette of an art deco tramway car, seen from upfront, black on a yellow background. It is, clearly, the depiction of a street sign, with the exception of a small tear drawn below one of the tram’s front windows, or “eyes”.
Queremos o nosso Bonde, is the battle cry of the borough. The bonde is nothing but the tram depicted in the signs, a plucky little yellow convoy that plighted a 6-km-long route up and down the hills of the borough, past the houses clinging on to the flank of the rain forest. Built over a disused aqueduct looking oddly Roman, the bonde – opened in 1877, electrified in 1896 – is the oldest such machine in Latin America and one of the few, if not the only one, line of public transit which is truly loved by the car-adoring cariocas.
A disused stop of the bonde.
The bonde’s fame as an attraction grew with the rise of tourism but, despite the assault of camera-toting tourists, it always remained firmly engraved in the neighbourhood’s consciousness, as well keeping on being the backbone of its mobility. Unfortunately, though, maintenance wasn’t kept on par with its importance. Rails progressively lost their anchorage to the ground. Wheels began to lose their grip. Electric motors and brakes began to fail at an alarming rate. Then, in 2011, the inevitable happened, when a car derailed, skidding off the railway, descending down one of the notoriously steep Santa Teresa roads and then crashing into a lamppost. Six people were killed, and 50 more injured, some seriously.
The accident spelt disaster for the Bonde. An inquiry uncovered what everyone in Santa Teresa, i.e. that the tragedy was largely imputable to the shoddy maintenance given to the cars and railways, the result of chronic underfunding and governmental neglect. The Bonde, whose iconic silhouette featured heavily on the advertising material that secured Rio’s election as Olympic host city, was shut down.
Soon after the crash, the city pledged 110 million Reais for the refurbishment of the Bonde, including new cars and a refurbished set of tracks. Santa Teresa started looking forward its new Bonde, but hope soon left space to disillusion, frustration and anger. The works were due to be completed in time for the 2014 World Cup but, as Brazil’s hopes for a sixth title were crushed by Germany, only one tram had been delivered, and the track upgrades were equally in dire waters, with a plethora of opened and abandoned road works that paralysed Santa Teresa, whose inhabitants began voicing their anger with street sit-ins and campaigns such as the one exemplified by the image of the weeping streetcar.
In late 2014 a new plan was unveiled, with a phased opening due to start in 2015. Needless to say, the date has come and gone, and yet the Bonde isn’t trundling along the tracks; now the new deadline is the start of the Olympics, in 2016. Locals, however, don’t seem to be holding their breath: it wouldn’t be the first time that Rio had lost the train for delivering something in time for a big occasion. This time, however, the train won’t be a metaphorical one.
The situation in June 2015.