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Rio's Christmas Barge


And we'll finish this hour with a quick trip to the famously beautiful city of Rio de Janeiro. It's a good time to go because the city's beaches and cliffs are all the more dazzling during the holiday season. In fact, that extra sparkle is in the Guinness Book of World Records. NPR's Julie McCarthy sends us this report.

JULIE McCARTHY reporting:

The idea began on a napkin. The chief of Prodesco Bank was brainstorming over lunch with events promoter Roberto Medina on how to capture Rio's imagination. Medina appeared down on his doodling, saw an image and proclaimed, `How about a floating Christmas tree?'

(Soundbite of crowd)

McCARTHY: Ten anniversaries later, the lighting of the world's largest floating Christmas ornament has become one of the social events of the year.

(Soundbite of crowd)

McCARTHY: Dignitaries swill champagne, pop canapes and cooperate with the paparazzi. The well-dressed and dressed-down all wear the same expectant look as a red-robed choir takes to the stage with an unlit tree as a backdrop.

(Soundbite of choir in the background)

McCARTHY: The festivities this year drew tens of thousands, according to organizers. In the pecking order of Cariocas, as Rio's residents are known, this occasion falls just behind Carnival and New Year's when the city dresses in white and takes a ritual dip in the ocean. The tree floats in Rio's Lagoa, a small lake that is fed by the ocean and sits behind the narrow strip of land known as Ipanema, as in `the girl from.' Green-carpeted hills loom beside the promenade that lines the lake. The Christ statue atop the cliff of Corcovado peers down from above.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Emcee: (Foreign language spoken)

McCARTHY: The emcee's `Merry Christmas' inaugurates the season as a giant scene flashes images of Christmas trees past. Awhile down memory lane and all goes black.

(Soundbite of music and cheers)

McCARTHY: The crowd gasps under a canopy of fireworks. Jets of water leap from the base of the tree with each crescendo. Two million, eight hundred thousand lights morph one design into the next as the tree comes to life. Christmas candles and wheat boughs, the year's theme, appear in a shimmering outline of purple, orange and gold. It's a gigantic jewel on still, black water. Taking the plaudits of the public, tree originator Roberto Medina recounts how the tree came loose from its moorings one year, panicking the Prodesco Bank sponsor who woke up, found it missing and thought it had gone the way of most things not nailed down in Rio.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. ROBERT MEDINA (Tree Originator): The president of Prodesco called me in the morning--early in the morning and said, `Look, they stole the tree.'

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEDINA: That's impossible. In the lake, it's impossible.

McCARTHY: The thief was none other than the wind blowing it to the other side of the lake. The tree is not designed to float freely; it's too big. Rather, it's moored at different locations so everyone around the lake can see it. Medina's dream is to float a tree in New York's Central Park. This night, he's content to give the residents of Rio what he calls a chance to dream.

Mr. MEDINA: Because this is a dream. Because when the stock is a dream--the draw in the paper is nothing. It's possible. I think the big problem--the biggest problem, though, is that the people don't dream on.

(Soundbite of boat motor)

McCARTHY: A quick launch to the tree reveals it's no tree at all. It is 27 stories of metal and miles of wire weighing 450 tons. Event coordinator Etsan Gonzales(ph) says a team of more than a thousand people works on the tree, which is not without its detractors. Admirers clog traffic around the lake, irritating commuters, to which Gonzales replies...

Mr. ETSAN GONZALES (Event Coordinator): (Through Translator) There's always a lot of traffic on the lake. Isn't it better to have--be stuck in a traffic jam staring at the tree?

McCARTHY: Back on land, Counsay Sow El Conterentias(ph) sits beside the lake admiring the view and the effect of the occasion on Rio.

Mr. COUNSAY SOW EL CONTERENTIAS: (Through Translator) Rio has a very sad side and a happy side, but when everyone unites for an event like this there's no violence. Everyone's together. Everyone celebrates this together.

McCARTHY: The tree is expected to draw tens of thousands of visitors before it comes down in January. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(Soundbite of music and fireworks)

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE (Host): And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.