Of seven ancient Wonders of the world, only one remains: the Pyramids. Here's a photo of me posing in front of the Pyramids, with a plastic bag in my hand.
Through neglect and general slack maintenance, the other six Wonders have ceased to be (and it's debated whether the Hanging Gardens ever really were), and this pretty miserable record prompted a global rethink. If celestial beings were to arrive and ask for a quick tour of our seven greatest sights, it doesn't look too good to say that we've kind of lost most of them, hence on July 7th of this year - the very cute 7/7/7 - after polling the votes of 100 million people, though not thinking to ask me, seven new Wonders were unveiled. Not just any old seven man-made structures, but seven Wonders, structures that make you gasp, shriek, and, naturally, wonder.
Some you can't really argue with. Macchu Picchu and the Great Wall of China are clearly of great distinction. Impressive, iconic, and inspiring of genuine wonder. Jordan's Petra, the Colloseum and the big Mexican pyramid (despite being a blatant rip-off) are also pretty close, and deserving contenders. The Taj Mahal is probably pretty good too, though it doesn't excite me personally.
None of these I have visited in person, though one day I hope to. I've visited the world's second biggest colloseum, in Pula, Croatia, six years ago, and I was vaguely in the area of Jordan once, and visiting Petra would have been a consideration had I not been under time pressure. But I did visit the final member of the new Wonders today, and (whisper it here) it isn't really that good.
I'm talking about Rio de Janeiro's Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) statue. About 30m high, placed aloft a steep hill and overlooking all of Rio, as if embracing this beautiful but muddled city, it's a magnificent monument, and a huge icon with increasing worldwide recognition. Impressive, certainly, but a modern Wonder? No.
I don't know what the criteria for being a Wonder is, but I would suggest the following should be key: visually spectacular, astonishing feat of engineering/craftsmanship, world class iconic status, how many tourists can you cram around it. The Redentor looks great, but no greater that its rival, New York's Lady Liberty which I would argue nudges it for iconic status. But perhaps that it overlooks the city is significant. However, letting it down is the whole "wonder" part - I know how this was made, and I don't think it was too severe a test of human effort. It's just a stone statue, made from different blocks, and then pinned into place. All less than 100 years ago. A good job well done, but not something future generations will puzzle over. If they had made it 300m high, then we'd be onto something, but a 30m statue built in the same year as the Empire State Building does not equal a Wonder.
What should be on that list, then? Well, we've just mentioned the Empire State Building - a world class, world famous icon of New York, an engineering feat of its day, and still towering impressively over a mighty city. Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple complex by all accounts is something to behold, though it needs another few decades to build up a truly global repuation. The Eiffel Tower is about iconic as it gets. Less global icon but more genuine engineering miracle is the 6000 year old Stonehenge, that still generates debate as to its assembly. And, a very strong contendor, although I've not put the photos up yet, my new Market Street flat is pretty damn good.
But all this negative talk obscures the fact that today I saw the tremendous Cristo Redentor, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and let's not have some stupid poll by some stupid 100 million people get in the way of that. It began with a very lively taxi driver, who exclaimed "Oh my God" with great frequency and gusto, and declared a deep admiration for chef Nigella Lawson. He dropped off at the small station at the base of the steep, forested hill the statue is perched on. There is an option to drive to the top, or even walk (though you'd have to traverse a favella) but I'd heard that taking the chugging red train was the cutest option, and a tourist prerequisite. So sharing my train with some nasal Americans, Brazilian families and the Kazakh judo team (yes, really), I sat back in my seat as the train somehow dragged itself up a 45 degree angle, through thick mountain forests and past favella shacks, with a curious mix of giant bugs and saints placed at intervals, as if on a Disney tour of Catholicism.
Once the train had arrived, we were almost there, but there was still a small walk to go. Fortunately, lifts were in place to bypass the bulk of this climb, but being the fit young man I am, I opted for the stroll. Plus, I didn't fancy having to wedge myself in with the Kazakh judo team. But after almost five minutes of slightly gradiented climb, I was questioning my choice. Fortunately, the following then appeared:
Escalators at Wonders is clearly a good idea. I went up and down them twice. It reminds me, in fact, of my days back in Daegu, Korea. This modern city is crammed full of escalators, and in my two years there I became quite a conniseur, even though I evidently can't spell the word. My favourites were the dinky little one in the Kyobo bookstore, and the grand one at the train station, even though it was horrendous for electric shocks. I also liked the sloped, flat ones in giant superstores like Carrefour and Wal*Mart. With my good friend and bad influence, the devastatingly handsome Matt, we seriously proposed "Escalator Day" in which we would travel as many escalators as possible, and take photos of each other on them, and then give them various ratings. It would make an excellent book, we thought. Thankfully, none of this ever transpired.
Anyway, if my day had ended here - travelling up and down an escalator on top of a mountain - I would have been happy, but there was more to come. For once up, and at the very base of this faux-Wonder, spectacular views of the city were afforded. Rio is a beautiful city, and though its many details can't possibly be seen from such a distance, the picturesque panorama is something to behold. So, behold:
Up here were throngs of tourists, though most were concentrated on the elongated area in front of the statue, and never seemed to tire of taking photos of each other. How many photos of yourself and a statue does a person need? One is my answer.
It was downhill from here. Literally. And my taxi driver home was a bona fide maniac. I've taken many foreign taxis in my time, but Brazil is up there with Egypt and Korea for the hairiest. And this guy especially. He was clearly in a bad mood, though mercifully not with me who he seemed to not mind, and kept making short, gruff calls on his mobile, which was perpetually in one or other of his hands. He was driving fast, whenever possible, and aggressively darting into unlikely gaps. All this is par for the course. Then, on a gridlocked section of motorway, he started careering down the hard shoulder, which was peppered with speed bumps. However, ahead was a driver who disapproved of this cavalier approach to the hard shoulder, and he'd manouevred part onto the lane, but still at gridlocked speed, thus blocking my taxi's rapid passage. Even though it was slowing me down, I quite admired this car driver's motoring vigilance. My taxi driver didn't see it this way. He started flashing his lights, then hanging out his window shouting, then going bumper to bumper. Eventually, after a few minutes of this, and a few minutes of the taxi driver getting more and more irate, a small gap happened to form, and my taxi jumped in it. The judgement was spectacularly perfect - there could have been no more than an inch either side, between the vigilante car and between the crash barrier. Pulling alongside, my taxi driver yelled obscenities. The gridlocked traffic the vigilante car was adhering to came again to a halt, and my taxi driver pulled free, but then he slammed on his brakes. His temper had gone. A car behind shunted into the back of us, but the taxi driver didn't even notice, as he got out the taxi and stormed to the vigilante car. Shouting furiously, he opened and then slammed the driver's door, and it looked like a full-on fight might kickstart, as both were poised at the brink of hysteria. They were causing a traffic jam now, and cars were beeping and people shouting. My taxi driver came to his sense and returned, still in a mad anger, and drove off. And then he did something that really worried me.
He put his seatbelt on.
Fortunately, the rest of the journey was less eventful, and quicker, and my driver even apologised for the scene he'd caused. And, to be fair, he'd got me back to my hotel in a very fast time.
That was that then. Off to the rig tomorrow, though probably not for long, and then... who knows. Months in Brazil, or will I miraculously get home in time to get the keys for my fourth flat? I wonder.