The Milky Way Galaxy and other stars visible in the sky from a LATAM Airlines flight from Miami to Rio in the air near Puerto Rico early Wednesday, August 3, 2016.
To suggest that the past three days of prepping for, traveling to, and arriving in Rio for the 2016 Summer Olympics have been a roller coaster of emotions would be putting things lightly. In just a little over 40 hours on the ground, I’ve experienced the most heartwarming support from total strangers, the visual culture shock of the worst living conditions I’ve ever seen, and – I wish this last part was an exaggeration – the near panic-inducing horror of seeing death just feet from me.
In keeping with the roller coaster analogy, let’s start with the lift hill at the beginning of the ride, which would have been my flight to Rio early Wednesday morning. As our Boeing 767 lumbered into the jet-black moonless sky somewhere over Puerto Rico, I decided to put the Sally Mann memoir that I’d been reading to bed. With my reading light doused, I turned to the window and cupped my hands tightly around my face to see if anything was worth a look. Gradually, as my eyes adjusted to what seemed like total darkness beyond the wing-tip, I noticed stars flickering into view from the inky blackness above. First, just a couple, then a handful, then more than I could count!
Constellations began to emerge, most recognizably Orion the Hunter and his belt – typically a sign that winter is on the way back in Chicago, and for this August flight south of the equator, that was exactly the case! The swirling eddies of The Milky Way even began to make their entrance as my eyes flushed more of the darkness away.
To not try and capture an image of this celestial spectacle before me on a trip with the expressed purpose of photography seemed like outright blasphemy, so I quickly fashioned a dark cloth out of my in-flight blanket to block stray reflections from the window (of which I mostly succeeded in eliminating) and got to work. Shooting sharp hand-held three second exposures on a jet aircraft in light chop turbulence is no easy feat! In the end, I got a few frames that almost approximated the heavenly grandeur that I’ll keep locked away in my mind for a lifetime.
A neighborhood along the highway on the outskirts of Rio.
If my flight was the lift hill of the roller coaster, the first drop came on the way from the airport to my housing accommodations in the village of Deodoro. I was prepared in coming to Brazil for rough economic conditions, but I was not prepared for the continuous-loop hardships that played on either side of the rain-speckled shuttle bus windows with I as the lone passenger. Homes here appear to suffocate neighboring structures in a wrestling match for dominance – their walls pinning and grappling with one another in a haphazard jumble of disarray. Black spider web electrical lines toss themselves down from poles spiked into the fray, fanning out past pink-curtained windows and mint green stuccoed walls, sporting spray-canned tattoos in dialects unknown.
With most of my travels back home, an impoverished neighborhood will appear on the landscape and eventually fade into a motif of something more stable. That never happened along the road here. The blight and poverty continued on and on and on, and I quickly realized that living conditions and landscapes such as these are the norm here in Brazil. A sobering realization to say the least, and one that gave me a bit of pause with regards to the extended time I’d be spending here.
Homes in Deodoro, a suburb of Rio.
Just as I was digesting the rapid change in place, the roller coaster came to a screeching halt. Ahead on the road, I noticed a lone police vehicle blocking the left lane, and as the bus slowed down to give caution to the scene, I turned my gaze to the left window which I was seated against. Looking down into the roadway, I first saw a toppled-over motorcycle, and about 40 feet beyond that, I was shocked to see the motorcycle’s deceased rider. The police officer had already tried to offer the victim some dignity by covering him with a black garbage bag torn open to fashion a sheet, but the bag was not large enough to cover the crimson river rapidly escaping from the rider’s head. The flowing red current meandered with the asphalt for several feet before dissolving into ripples from the weeping sky.
This was probably one of, if not the most gruesome scenes I’ve seen in person, and combined with the culture shock of the landscape it played out against, it took everything within me to remain as calm as the bus driver, who offered not so much as a single head shake or change in disposition. Why didn’t he react? Is this common here? Has he seen this before? Does this happen all the time? For this to not come as even a surprise to him was also quite telling as to the likely reality that is Brazil for its residents.
My neighborhood in the Deodoro village, where I am staying in an apartment building like the ones pictured above. The apartments are converted from former military barracks that used to serve the base here, which takes up much of Deodoro.
Upon arriving at my apartment, rattled and tired from a 26-hour-long travel day, I was met with some of the most caring Olympics employees I’ve met so far. The young woman who handled my reservation – dark pool brown eyes peeking above her freckled cheeks – showed me all the way to my building, and despite my protest, held an umbrella mostly above my head. Just behind us, a bell-hop pushing a cart of my possessions also grabbed an umbrella, but not for himself – he didn’t want my luggage to get wet. The contrast in this care and compassion juxtaposed against what I had just witnessed on the highway made for a very overwhelming unpacking session when I got settled in.
The following day (today) saw more stability and calm as myself and the USA Today Sports team prepared for the Opening Ceremony tomorrow. Meetings were had, phone calls were made, and images that haven’t seen a lens yet were carefully planned and accounted for. I’m hoping to travel with a guide to a neighborhood a few miles from the stadium where the ceremony is being held to make a beautiful landscape photo of the fireworks and surrounding community during the show. There was talk of sending me up in a helicopter for an aerial perspective, but after a lot of research and contacts from good aviation friends, I discovered that all private aviation has been grounded here until after the Olympics are over.
It’s not every day I get to stand in a room filled with ten million dollars worth of Canon camera gear! (Photo by Shanna Lockwood)
In a lighthearted and exciting moment of the day (which I think you’ll agree that I needed by this point), fellow photographer Shanna Lockwood and myself got a behind-the-scenes visit to the Canon equipment cage at the Main Press Center, where the photographic giant has stockpiled all the gear it has brought to Rio to loan to the hundreds of photographers covering the games. We were told that the value of the equipment exceeds ten million dollars! It was quite exciting to be surrounded by so much high-end technology in such a tiny room.
In wrapping up today’s longer-than-usual Olympics blog, I will continue a tradition that I started in Sochi by offering a language lesson of the country we’re in!
Guy’s Portuguese Word of the Day is, “seguro,” pronounced, “say-goo-row,” meaning, “safe,” as in, “I hope the rest of my trip to Rio is seguro and rewarding.”