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