A year ago, I couldn’t have imagined going to Rio de Janiero, Brazil, let alone going there to participate in the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20. But it happened this June, and I did it. While I have many reflections on the city and the numerous events, one experience I want to lift up is my journey up Corcovado to see the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue which watches over that marvelous city. My travel guidebook, tells me that Corcovado is the name of the mountain on which this remarkable monument resides—named after its shape (corcova) which in Portuguese means hunchback. I learned that in 2007, this art-deco style monument was named one of the “New Seven Wonders of the World.” My guess is that nearly everyone who travels to Rio makes the pilgrimage to this mountaintop to take in both the impressive statue and the view.
From the taxi ride to my hotel upon arriving in Brazil, until the last ride back to the international airport, I could see the 98-foot tall statue of Jesus with welcoming arms outstretched. I saw it first from the window of my fellow-travelers’ hotel room from downtown Rio and then again, out my hotel window a twenty minute taxi ride away from the central part of the city— bathed in green light at night, most likely in deference to the U. N. Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20. Ubiquitous, beckoning, and somehow comforting, it seemed.
For me one of the best parts of Rio is its imposing mountains, next to my second favorite habitat—the beach. Those mountains were giants against the sky, towering over the city, its inhabitants and visitors. Some were totally forested; others were almost completely covered with small houses—the colorful small homes of those of lesser means—neighborhoods known as the favelas. People living in the favelas were generally employed to serve those more fortunate, who lived adjacent in the newer high-rise apartments. Some served tourists in the hotels, restaurants or bars while others depended on warm sunny days on the beaches of Copacabana or Ipanema to sell their wares. And all of these little houses were electrified—a constant reminder to me that the influence of the developed world. Technology in our modern American culture, whether good or bad for the planet, has become a yardstick for progress for much of the rest of the world.
Sally Dunne from the Loretto Community NGO at the United Nations, her intern Emily Thenhaus and I took the opportunity to head to Corcovado the day after Rio+ 20 ended. A long taxi ride across town took us past Lake “Rodrigo de Frietas” and eventually to the streets of Cosme Vehlo, the neighborhood where “pilgrims” to the mountaintop catch a little tram to the summit. Upon arrival, we did what we had grown accustomed to doing during most of the conference—we waited. Our tram wouldn’t be leaving for about an hour. But waiting for anything in this new-found, fascinating place, would be nothing but a pleasure for me.
Sally and Emily decided to explore the local neighborhood. I chose to stay nearby and watch for any new birds I might see. Interestingly, one of the first I saw was the House Sparrow. Yep. The same alien weaver finch that we have—having made its way from England to Brazil—a common city dweller, a generalist that can adapt to most places, and eats all kinds of junk food. I strolled down to the little park beside the tram station and settled in. I kept hearing new bird sounds and was surrounded by so many interesting people—some locals, others obviously tourists like me. Satisfied with identifying a Swallow-tailed Hummingbird, I made my wait back to our appointed meet-up place.
Soon we were in line for our ride up the mountain. The little red tram had two cars; I estimated about 40 people fit in each one. We scrambled onto a nearly full car and took the first available seats. Most of the window seats—premium for catching the views of Rio below—were already taken. As the tram began to wind its way slowly up the 2,000+ foot mountain, I found myself overwhelmed emotionally by feelings of grief. I fought back my tears. Why was all this emotion welling up in me?
Then it dawned on me. What a contrast to West Virginia! How could it be that our mountains at home were being tortured and obliterated via mountaintop removal strip mining of coal, while this mountain, Corcovado, was so venerated? I’ve not checked it out, but I suspect there’s no coal under the summit of Corcovado. As we chugged our way to the top I thought about why it is that we are we drawn to these high places—places with expansive views. Beyond their incomprehensible beauty, mountains are magical. Can the human heart be transformed by such a pilgrimage? Do we sense that they are they sacred places? Is it only for the view or could it be a place to gain greater perspective on our own lives? When a person can see for miles and miles, when this god-like perspective makes miniatures of everything below, do we unconsciously and simultaneously experience a sense of being finitely small yet somehow great? Indeed, when I reached this summit, I was overcome by wonderful emotions—joy and peace. Although Corcovado is crowded with sight-seers, alone in my thoughts, I was awestruck by this great geologic monument—a fraction of God’s Great Opus.
I descend with only more questions: Who calculates the intrinsic value of a mountaintop? And who, with any self- examination, could destroy one?
If you’re reading this and love mountains, you can do something to help save some mountains in southern West Virginia. Contact President Obama here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/contact/write-or-call and tell him he needs to place an immediate moratorium on mountaintop removal in Central Appalachia.