Having never set foot on the continent of Latin America, it has always excited my imagination.

I've planned my road trip, beginning in Chile and going up to Peru, then across the Andes and down through the wilds of Bolivia and Paraguay if that is possible, to the land of our new rugby mate, Argentina. I want to meet Rosario and Buenos Aires but really, I'm just savouring the thought of getting every closer to that glorious, riotous cocktail of a city, Rio de Janeiro.

It's almost the last great city of my imagination. I've been to most of them and while some, such as Paris and Istanbul, were nearly everything I'd imagined, they are real now. There is something to be said for keeping a place in the imagination. I might never go to Rio.

Admittedly, that realisation has happened only in the past few weeks. Has any city ever had a worse build-up for an Olympic Games?

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The Zika virus was bad luck but it now looks a minor problem beside the reports we have read of the filth in the water, the crime, the shake-downs, the corruption, the poverty, the social unrest, not to mention the Russians. Rio has been so badly governed that police owed pay by the city's bankrupt state, greeted the first Olympic visitors at the airport with signs saying, "Welcome to hell".

Possibly it was the same police corps (there seem to be several) that resorted to armed hold-ups for their sustenance. A Sao Paulo resident wrote to the paper last week saying he had been robbed a gunpoint three times in his 21 years there. It is not a matter of if, but when, he said. It was a reminder of the film City of God some years ago, a vivid and gruelling portrayal of life in vast housing projects where every youth had a gun and their gang wars made living there precarious for everybody. It was the kind of movie you're glad to leave.

But I'd repressed that memory and I want Rio to make all the bad news recede when I watch its Olympic opening ceremony this morning. I want to see the wild, enchanting kaleidoscope of life I imagine Brazil to be. I also want to learn something of its history and national identity and hopes. There is nothing quite like these grand opening productions to show how a country sees itself, past, present and future.

Writing in the Herald on Wednesday, a Brazilian at Auckland University, Dr Genero Oliveira, pointed out it is a post-colonial society. We have that much in common. Brazil must be just about the oldest post-colonial society in the world since it was colonised by Portugal all of 500 years ago.

That makes it a century older than the North American colonies that became the US and Canada, 300 years older than Australia and New Zealand.

I want Rio to make all the bad news recede when I watch its Olympic opening ceremony.

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If ever post-colonialism can settle into a comfortably fair and equal ethnic mix it should be Brazil. And its sparkling football teams do give that impression.

As Oliveira wrote, "Brazilian national teams are made up of a fabulously eclectic collection of skin tones, hair styles and nose shapes. No matter what part of the world you are from, you'll resemble someone in that squad."

But, "like most countries," he reckoned, "it is a former European colony which built its wealth on the sweat and tears of brown and black populations (and) is still torn between the promises of freedom and the reality of racism."

Brazil looked to be coming right a few years ago under a popular left-wing president, "Lula" da Silva. It was one of the big, new "emerging" economies, the B of the Brics. The Rio-based oil company, Petrobras, was venturing as far as New Zealand waters, to the alarm of some, in its drilling for undersea reserves.

But Petrobras was state-owned and it has all turned to custard, tainting Lula's reputation and forcing his successor, Dilma Rousseff, to step aside in the face of impeachment.

Rio, meanwhile, has been in decline since the 1960s, according to the Economist this week.

Apparently it has never got over losing its status as the national capital to the purpose-built inland city, Brasilia. Rio had already begun to lose its commercial pre-eminence to Sao Paulo. A poll last September found 56 per cent of Rio's residents wanted to leave.

So the city has a lot riding on the Olympics. It is not inconceivable that an event such as this can restore the spirit of a once-great city and be the moment that it will look back on as the beginning of its revival.

I'm hoping so. I need that enchanting city beneath the arms of a statue.

I need it to be where I want to go.