At 7 o’clock AM, punctual as the council tax bill or the Gol planes noisily gliding towards Santos Dumont airport, they arrived. A small family of marmosets – gray-ish fur, long tail, inquisitive expressions and long white hair sprouting out of their ears, making them look prematurely old – descended down the tree, from the bush recesses where they lived, and went on to keep an eye on us. Their short, sharp ticking squeaks reminded me, with certain unease, of the Velociraptor noises in Jurassic Park but, apart from that, they were pretty much harmless.
This was, in a nutshell, our biggest worry when in Botafogo: keeping the marmoset family on their tree and out of our kitchen and away from our mangos. Sure, it is a generalisation and shouldn’t be taken as a description of the situation for the entire Rio de Janeiro, but – apart from the distant bursts of automatic gunfire we had heard one night whilst sipping beer on the patio – all the paranoia we came armed with felt quite, if not totally, unjustified. And that was thanks to Botafogo.
Rio de Janeiro is a stunning city, blessed by a natural scenery that offsets however many eyesores the cariocas have erected over the years, and there are parts of town that are more picture perfect than Botafogo but the latter was, undoubtedly, my favourite.
Ripe (and perhaps a bit-too-ripe) star fruits from the tree used by the marmosets as staging point.
The bush behind our home.
Named after João Pereira de Sousa Botafogo, a Portuguese sailor and settler who was granted this area by the King in the XVI century, the bairro has an unlikely name for a place so relaxed, for botafogo roughly translates in ‘spitfire’. My original explanations for such a name revolved around obscure geological motivations – volcanoes, geysers or other accidents of nature – but were indeed wrong, for Botafogo was the nickname of the São João Baptista, a period galleon which had the reputation of being the most badass of the world at that time. João Pereira was a gunnery officer on board and apparently he had such a blast – pun intended – that he added Botafogo to his family name and the rest, as we know, is history.
Botafogo seen from the first stop of the Sugar Loaf gondola.
The geography of the bairro is quite simple to understand. To the south, it’s limited by the lagoon and by a series of thick-bushed hills meeting the sea in the spectacular formation of the Sugar Loaf, the same hills where our stalking marmosets originated. To the west, past a no-mans’-land made of fast-moving traffic and pollution, lies the usually deserted praha de Botafogo, used by the local yacht club. To the north the borough ends in Flamengo and in the majestic spurs of the Corcovado, the statue of Christ the Redeemer dominating the view like a lighthouse. Below, it’s a tightly knit wave of straight roads lined with exotic trees, lianas mingling with their man-made counterparts, electricity and telephone cables.
Botafogo isn’t a picturesque borough like you can see elsewhere in Rio – Santa Teresa, for example – or abroad: colonial houses are in various state of decay, with the notable exception of Rui Barbosa’s residence, now a heritage site, and they are intertwined by uglier modern blocks that reminded me of those one can see in Japan (not the finest contribution to the world’s architecture). But the beauty lies, in my opinion, in the bairro’s street life: everything happens on the sidewalks, from car repairs to the omnipresent bars where locals gather to talk over the noise of yet another soap opera drama scene. Marmosets dart from one pole to another, keeping an eye out for possible sources of food; meanwhile, the Cristo Redentor embraces Botafogo on yet another glorious sunny day.