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Earth Summit Host Puts Woes on Hold

High-level security fails to curb city's cachet or white-knuckle taxi rides - a letter from Rio

FIRST impressions are always suspect, but it seems Rio de Janeiro has made things unusually attractive for the Earth Summit, now into its second week. And more important, to the diplomats, journalists, and other high-pressure types gathered here from around the world, Rio has also done its best to make most everything work smoothly.

The make-it-work part was in some doubt at first. The day before the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development was to begin, there was a near-riot at the summit site when hundreds of reporters were herded into a long line - to take a number for the real line to get accredited. (Your correspondent was No. 176 and grateful for the relatively low number, which equated to a wait of just 2 1/2 hours.)

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But soon the briefing arrangements and telecommunications facilities and bus schedules were sorted out, thanks to a small army of patient young Brazilian facilitators.

Rio is known for its high number of assaults and robberies, but for these few days, at least, security has been usually high. The police have been beefed up with Army troops who seem to be on every corner - young men in fatigues and helmets armed with automatic weapons and watchful eyes. The highway to the summit site is guarded by armored cars, and military helicopters in formation dart up and down the shoreline. Interpol, the international police agency, is here, as are United Nations police.

Meanwhile, battalions of men wearing orange jump suits and equipped with brooms and shovels work day and night keeping trash in the streets to a minimum.

BRAZIL is also known for its thousands of street children, who beg and engage in petty crime to survive. Officials reportedly have used threats and inducements to clear many of them from the streets. Still, a sunrise jogger sees small bodies curled together on the beach and sidewalks, sometimes multiple lumps under a ragged blanket or a newspaper.

The beaches at that early hour see a surprising number of Rio residents out walking, running, bicycling, roller-blading, swimming, and even organizing volleyball and soccer games. As the day warms up (it's very hot by midday, even though it's winter here) the numbers increase.

Everyone, it seems, is dressed in minimal swimwear - irrespective of age, gender, socio-economic status, or body type. Many are walking their dogs; one very elderly basset is being wheeled about in a baby-carriage by its young master.

Two things Rio hasn't been able to rein in are inflation and taxi drivers. Inflation is running at about 20 percent per month. This has caused some squabbles at Earth Summit food stalls where posted prices haven't kept up with overnight jumps in the cost of a sandwich or slice of pizza. Still, food prices at restaurants in town are very reasonable.

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Taxi fares are also reasonable, particularly if one views the journey as a form of amusement - like those white-knuckle carnival rides named after meteorological phenomena.

Even an ex-Bostonian is impressed by the driving skills, which involve barely subsonic speeds, rapid closure rates, and even vehicle clearances measured in millimeters. The Brazilian's government "information for delegates" booklet states simply that "pedestrians have no rights in traffic," and one has no reason whatsoever to doubt the warning.

Drivers barreling down on street-crossers may flash their lights. Still, unlike other cities, there is no animosity nor malice in the way drivers treat each other or the Earth-bound.

There is much affection expressed in public. Hugs, kisses on both cheeks, a hand on a friend's shoulder as one walks along, the trademark thumbs up to denote the positive to a greeting or favor. Even in traffic.

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