That’s So Brazil

Post #10: The Marvellous City

Don’t do it. That’s the gist of the advice I got from my friends about going to Rio de Janeiro. It’s a bad time to visit, they said. The violence is out of control. Just don’t do it.

I told them I had to go. Spending five months in Brazil without seeing Rio seemed a little perverse to me—like, I don’t know, going to Agra and skipping the Taj Mahal, or visiting the Sistine Chapel without looking up. In order to know Brazil, I felt, I had to have at least a taste of the cidade maravilhosa. Rio 5

My friends intensified their admonitions. One kept sending me links to alarmist news stories: The drug lords have the police under a vice grip! The violence in Rio is worse than in Iraq! The federal government has called the army to step in! Another warned me that the airport taxis had formed a de facto mafia devoted to bilking tourists, and that favela gangs were known to shoot at each other across the linha vermelha highway into town.

These warnings got me spooked enough that I decided to spend just two days and one night in Rio. Any more time, I figured, and my odds of survival would drop to negligible levels.

My taxi-fearing friend was so concerned for my welfare that she arranged Rio 4for a driver called Marcos, recommended by her former employer, to pick me up at the airport. As we sped along the linha vermelha, the rising sun bringing the favelas into focus, I got ready to duck so I could dodge the bullets, but the street gangs were apparently taking a breakfast break.

After dropping my suitcase off at the Lemon Spirit hostel—yes, I still do hostels; it’s a good excuse to act half my age—I began walking. I walked around the nearby lagoon, then down to the ocean and along the famous Ipanema and Copacabana beaches. And back again.

What I saw was… people. Clusters of people going about their daily lives. Couples. People with children. Joggers. Dog walkers. Even some folks with their cell phones out. (My friends had told me that nobody in Rio would think of using a cell phone on the street because it’s as sure as gone.) How could this be? How could these horrible people risk exposing their children and pets to the crossfire? And did they want to have their cell phones ripped out of their hands?Rio 2

The next day I booked a guided tour. “Everyone turn left! See that monastery on the hill? In 1647…” is not my idea of a good time, but on this very hot day, an air-conditioned bus seemed the only reasonable way to see the city’s landmarks. Just as I’d feared, the guide kept throwing touristy facts at us, but even her nattering couldn’t take away from the grandeur of the Cristo Redentor, the heart-stopping views from the Pão de Açucar peak, or the loveliness of the Selarón Steps.

It may have been blind luck that prevented me from getting my purse snatched or my throat slit, but I tend to believe Marcos, who told me, on the way back to the airport, that the media make a sport of exaggerating Rio’s dangers. If you want to know what things are really like, he said, talk to a local.

Edited to add: When I wrote this blog post I wasn’t aware of the recent assassination of councillor and activist Marielle Franco in Rio. Just wanted to acknowledge this great loss to Brazilians.

#solotravel #riodejaneiro #lemonspirit

20 thoughts on “That’s So Brazil

  1. People are the best part of any place. I’m glad you took the chance to experience the beauty of the locals and the land and that your friend arranged for the skills and wisdom of Marcos to provide you with true insights…. and to keep you safe.


  2. Wonderful post. Great read (no surprises there!) Good on you for choosing the option of adventure (Rio) with sensible precautions (group tour, Marcos). Always good to avoid heatstroke and to have a local provide a close-up (so to speak) assessment of a place you don’t know.

    This reminds me of how my Montrealer and ex-Montrealer friends described Toronto to me when I was deciding whether to move here from Montreal. It took me a while to adjust, but while less European and less (culturally) warm than Montreal, Toronto gradually became home. It’s not a (culturally) cold cement jungle as I believed it was when I first moved here. And of course it’s changed since I moved here in the 1990s. It’s bigger, more populous, more expensive, and much more multicultural than it was back then. Also much more interesting (to me, at least).


  3. That’s the media for you. Had the same experience in Joburg but when I went, it was just like any other big city, full of people going about their business. Do you wish you had spent more time in Rio?


  4. The “normal” side of Rio is not often discussed! A friend told me that if he wanted to buy an organ he’d go to Rio! I’ll send your post to him


  5. I was there about 4 years ago, I guess, and there were many such warnings. My partner was at a meeting in a hotel in the southern beach suburb of Barra de Tijuca, and so I had a good two days free to wander around the Jardim Botanico and see all the marmosets and birdlife as well as the plants. We went up and down the beach in our suburb, hit Ipanema and downtown by cab, and eventually stayed a couple of nights in a quiet neighbourhood up in the hills back behind downtown – Santa Teresa. Had a whole day’s hike in Parque Nacional da Tijuca. Lovely place. Oh, one strange event. We decided to go to the Amazon, which we hadn’t originally planned to do, and had to get a prescription for some malaria prophylaxis in Rio. The hotel found an English speaking doctor who for a stiff appointment fee gave us a prescription for Daraprim. We used about 6 pills from a phial with about 50 in it and at the end, I took the rest home. One night much later I was watching the telly when a story came on about Martin Shkreli jacking up the price of Daraprim and making it worth a fortune. I checked our long unused pill bottle and it was suddenly worth about $70,000. Except that the drug had just expired a couple of months before. We found out that a local AIDS charity happily took nominally expired but still effective Daraprim, and we donated it. So yes, we almost struck it rich by going to Rio. You never know what’s going to happen there.


  6. Thanks for this perspective on Rio. Like you, I have often heard negative things about this city, but still have the desire to go. Your insights are reassuring!


  7. Your experience sounds like the way you live your life, Gabrielle. “All the world goes one way, you go the other”
    Glad you had the chance to see Rio and all turned out well.


  8. sick post! glad you survived as well. and yes, there’s always other people harbouring the same inner rebel-thoughts as you are.


  9. Love reading your post and that you choose the path less travelled Gabrielle. Have debated staying in hostels myself. Tell me more about this please! How to avoid danger yet grow, challenge one’s thinking and values yet have integrity, be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Much food for thought here. Thanks!


  10. Hi Gabrielle
    I am so glad that you had a good experience in Rio. I am a Brazilian (living in NY) from a small town in Sao Paulo that is afraid of Rio. There is danger for sure and there is tons of media hype. One has to use common sense and play it safe anywhere in the world.
    Blessings 🙂


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