Quite frankly, having the Pope recently pop in for a visit was a little unsettling. World Youth Day was one thing – easily ignored as we’re not ‘youth’ or Catholic and obviously didn’t expect an invitation – but his Holiness and three million of his close pilgrim friends was a whole different kettle of loaves and fishes.
Security ramped up and we lost track of which troops were which with the military, the two or three regular police forces, the tourist police and uniforms we couldn’t work out. Helicopters circled the skies and navy frigates prowled just beyond the breakers. At the height of the action, there were five of these and in a stretch of only four kilometres, they looked quite intimidating.
In other preparations, an enormous stage was constructed, scaffolds holding huge screens and banks of audio speakers were set up down the beach and a range of temporary art installations appeared. All looked to go smoothly and with the floods of brightly t-shirted pilgrims arriving, there was a new feel.
Strangely, the moment the Pope touched down, the temperature plummeted. Seriously, it dropped about fifteen degrees and started raining. This didn’t deter the pilgrims who turned out in their masses the following night to line the path of his H’s first outing down the length of Copacabana Beach. Expecting the worst and ready to bolt, but feeling like it was something we had to see, Gav and I dragged the kids out and lined up beside the barriers for over two hours, feeling a mite fraudulent that we are not Catholic. However, no one demanded we produce religious credentials and the crowd was relaxed and friendly. In fact it would have been quite pleasant if not for the pervasive aroma of moth balls owing to the fact the lady next to me had obviously had to dig deep into a cupboard to find something for the freakish cold.
Pope Francis finally drove past in his now less than bullet-proof vehicle, waving and smiling and stopping to kiss babies. Everyone cheered and took photos and wandered off calmly once he had gone. It was all very civilised – in a millions-strong youth group meeting kind of way. And for the next three nights, it happened all over again, each time with the Pope traveling down the same stretch, each night without anything going wrong. (Except for the issue on the final night, when the pilgrims staged a vigil and slept on the beach and we can reliably report that no amount of Portaloos could handle that demand.)
And two weeks later, the stage, the scaffolds and the pilgrims have all gone and everything’s pretty much back to normal – including the temporarily modified sand sculptures.
Finally, here is the beach (and the weather) just the way we like it!