At the top of Brazil’s Mount Corcovado, Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro. Emerging from the cable car, our tour group — some in hats, some in sunglasses, and some with arms pressed to their foreheads in a squinty sun salute — ascends the steps to stand beside Christ and take in the impressive view.
Today is Corpus Christi, and the mountaintop is crowded with pilgrims in shawls and rosary beads paying their respect to the Eucharist. When the 68 of us cannot advance to the lookout crag as a front, we scatter, corkscrewing around the other visitors to claim our view. I slip into a space at the center of the banister and lean forward.
In front of me is a city in miniature. I can pinch a skyscraper, trace a river with my pinky. I see our hotel beside the Copacabana coastline and squash it gently beneath my thumb. And right beside it, I see the favelas, Brazilian slums, strewn across the mountains like wayward marbles. I cup a favela in my hand and watch the ramshackle houses trickle from my fingers into the connecting city. Falling into one another, on top of one another, over and under.
I have seen the favelas before, but only in glimpses from the dusty windows of our tour bus. Taller than the emperor palms that have captured my East Coast eyes and far more unwieldy, the favelas nevertheless had to compete with the palms for my recognition in our overcrowded bus windows. Clothing hung on lines close to the highway; a beach towel featured Snow White, smiling benignly and oblivious to how she had been bent in half over a wire. Skinny children waded like mullet fish between seas of trash. Like Mordecai before Haman, some of the structures remained resiliently straight. But the favelas’ existence seemed largely one of layered collapse, one shanty genuflecting over the roof of another, bending obsequiously in the wind. Our tour guide, neglecting the microphone as he chatted animatedly with the director, suddenly grabbed hold of it as we entered Rio. The city overtook our windows, and the favelas slipped from view.
Here atop Corcovado, I lean over the banister and look out at the view. I breathe in the mountains, apparently outlined in watercolor pencil, with color bleeding into the horizon, and the thick band of sun that stretches like a ring around the world to which it is engaged.
And then I look down. Finally I am positioned properly, at enough of a height that no part of the city can scurry out of sight, and into my wide eyes I ladle the view before me. Now the favelas and I meet again. I had known of them vaguely before, from a picture among others in a photo essay I had paged through in a magazine, in a movie we had watched before our departure. It is very hot, so I let myself wilt over the guardrail, blinking at the sheer number of favelas that a camera could never capture.
Around me, my friends are excitedly taking pictures, taking cues from the tourists before us who spread their arms out in the statue’s image — and then I recall that there is, in fact, a statue behind me, that there is more than one view on this mountain, and then I turn around.
The statue’s pose is precise and deliberate, and odd. I wonder, fancifully, what it might be doing: its palms are pushing outward, not upward as if to catch something. Are its arms extended so it might catch itself as it, seeming to tilt over the mountaintop, plummets; does it anticipate the failure of its sculptor to anchor it securely to Corcovado’s peak? Or are its hands spread to welcome the world — to present us to Rio, or maybe to present Rio to us?
Except the statue’s Rio is not the Rio that I see. It looks not down at the city we have all come to ogle, but across, to the ocean. Those who pray to Christ, and take comfort in the cross-like statue’s presence at dark as it gleams like a nightlight over the city, are grateful, perhaps, to be reminded of the watchfulness of the constant guardian it represents. And yet, given the way it is posed, I am sure that the statue can see no more of the city than an earthworm sees of the sky. On the bus ride, I saw a man with boxes of Nestlé chocolate standing beside the favelas, arms spread like the statue’s, crisp red packages in both fists, crying out as the cars went past — does the statue hear him, does it even suspect that he exists?
But the statue is stone, and its blindness is not its fault, but that of its sculptor. Viewed from afar, its facial features become indistinguishable as it forms an unmistakable cross, exactly as the builders intended for the people of this traditionally Catholic country. Our home is even farther from afar, though; we cannot understand what it is like to awaken to our gods upon great mountaintops, and to fall asleep, grateful that they gaze upon us still. As close as we are to Christ, the distance between us remains palpable, and I look upon it as I would look upon a stranger.
In the photo we have taken together, we are standing awkwardly in between two arms that let us loose into a city the statue cannot see, a nature it cannot know. I feel that his hands do not hold us, do not embrace us. Instead, they push us, unknowingly, painlessly, into a country we do not understand.
We descend in the cable car, we walk to the bus, we get in and the door snaps shut and I grab a last picture of the statue before our sight of him is obscured, moving with uncomfortable speed as we have for the past week. A moment at a church, a moment at a mall, and another at an popular indoor market, where a vendor hardly has time to spear me a piece of pitaya to sample before my feet have moved onto the next stall, the next snatch of distracting color.
We are tourists who give our eyes no respect. We have replaced them with cameras that see what they photograph long before we do, if we ever see it at all. And soon it will be time to leave. That is our trip, always going until we are coming home, always staying short of long enough. We will later rush through streets the statue neither sees nor dreams about, but that our view of them is better is no guarantee that we have seen them any more clearly. I have noticed the favelas, yet with the statue behind me I think I cannot even imagine what I have missed when I so easily could have seen.
At the top of Brazil’s Mount Corcovado, the statue of Christ the Redeemer overlooks the city of Rio de Janeiro. But, if it saw what it should, then it would wonder if we were worthy of the redemption it so generously gives.