Before leaving for Rio de Janeiro, people advised us to never go to a favela, the slums of Brazil.
However, once in Rio, our tour guide, who had lived in the favelas and had visited the favelas often, assured us it was safe, “we must go, so you may understand Rio’s true culture. I would not take you somewhere unsafe,” and so we trusted and went into a favela.
The favelas are neighborhoods – places where people live – places where people raise their children. Yes, the conditions are rough – electrical and cable wires hanging in jumbled messes and running every which way without a plan, buildings stacked on top of other buildings without meeting code, trash piled in the streets without a truck to take it away, high crime without police officers to keep the peace and extreme poverty without good paying jobs to make life easier. Nevertheless, people share the universal commonalities – to be loved and to live a happy, good life.
Places become far less intimidating after we see with our own eyes how much we actually have in common. A good life is a universal want. When we understand this commonality, we no longer stand on the outside fearing what’s on the inside.
How are we to understand another’s culture if we don’t go inside?
“Replace fear of the unknown with curiosity” – Unknown
We arose at 4:45 AM and were on the street in front of our AirBnB at 5. Our guide, Patricia, hired a driver since the Easter holiday would draw crowds to the attractions we were visiting. In the darkness, we drove through the streets of Rio, winding uphill through the Santa Teresa neighborhood. As we made a turn, I noticed the full moon, brightly shining, seemingly spotlighting the Christ Redeemer statue on Mount Corovado’s summit. Before light this early Easter morning, the vision was quite comforting and downright breathtaking.
We arrived at a deserted parking lot. The driver stopped and let us out – only the truck’s headlights illuminated our path. Semi-apprehensively, we followed Patricia toward a staircase, leading upward through a lush, dark jungle. We climbed the stairs, trying not to think about all the warnings we’d heard, don’t go to a favela, don’t go to secluded areas, don’t go out after dark. I tried to ignore those voices and to listen to my gut – all would be OK, it was Easter.
At the top of the staircase, we walked onto a stone landing. The lights of Rio shined below us. The only sounds were our breathing and the subtle humming of the surrounding jungle’s insects – we were alone – us at the top of Rio de Janeiro, waiting for the sun to rise.
Almost immediately, the pinks and oranges of the morning sky arrived on the horizon.
As the 6:03 AM sun ascended,
the sky opened and the light shined through the clouds onto Rio –
Pedro, our Rio de Janeiro Airbnb owner, came to our apartment in the morning. He had a spare apartment key and another key to reset the safe. He brought a folder of gifts – a photograph he’d taken on Rio’s Ipanema Beach, a travel brochure featuring his images from Sudan and a bulletin from his 2013 photography exhibit. He had them ready for travel in a protective, plastic sleeve with barrier paper. Such care.
He offered to take us for a juice and for a trip to Saturday’s market in the nearby square. We were thrilled to have a personal travel guide. We went to the juice store on the corner, and Pedro ordered for us – asking for samples from the waiter who took our order. I had a mango/pineapple juice, and LCP had an avocado milk juice. We all shared a breakfast sandwich, Pedro’s choice. So good.
We walked across the street to the market. Pedro confirmed it was OK to get out my camera, and he put my backpack on his front, crossing his arms across my pack to protect it while we walked the market’s aisles.
Leaving the market, LCP unexpectedly hollered, “ewww, what is this?!” Something disgusting had dropped onto her foot out of nowhere – was it a bird? Was it from a dog? I grabbed a paper towel from a fruit stand vendor to clean it off her foot. Pedro bent down to help her out. Protecting. We’d barely started walking, and it happened again! UGH! Right then, a local stopped us, warning us in Portuguese to keep walking and to get away – thankfully, Pedro was able to translate the warning for us. As we rushed out of the market, Pedro discerned that LCP had probably been a target. It’s a thing in Rio to toss something nasty onto someone’s bare skin – the person reacts by trying to clean it off of themselves and then the thief pickpockets the person or asks for money to clean it. Thankfully, we weren’t victims – we’re thankful for our Brazilian friends who had our backs (and foot.) Once again, protecting.
Pedro suggested that we go with him to Copacabana Beach – we could share his cab. Since his apartment is across the street, he’d change his clothes and then join us at the military fort next to the beach. He had officially become our unofficial Rio tour guide –
Leaving Copacabana and heading back toward our apartment and Ipanema Beach, Pedro gave me some advice, “you need to go change your clothes. You need to blend in like a local – Havaianas, tank top, swimming suit and shorts…” He was looking out for me. Even though I thought my no jewelry and hidden camera equipment made me look less like a tourist, but Pedro’s assessment: right then, I looked like a foreigner, wearing Lululemon pants and designer sunglasses. On the way to change my clothes, we ran into Pedro’s Belgian friend, a real estate developer, who was walking to the beach in his Speedo. The Belgium man reinforced Pedro’s advice. With his 50+ year old mouth full of metal braces, he spoke to us about the sketchiness of the beach, but his happy-go-lucky approach made us laugh out loud. He only brings one credit card and he leaves the card and his cheap sunglasses at a favorite bar while he swims. Words of Rio wisdom: Blend in like a local.
We left Happy Speedo Guy at a beach bar and walked to the end of the Ipanema beach with Pedro. Pedro motioned that it was OK to get my camera out of my backpack. We hiked to the top of a hill overlooking Ipanema Beach, following Pedro as he pointed out the landmarks. At the top of the hill, we watched the locals, took in the view and made more friends.
Having an AirBnB owner, who unexpectedly became our local tour guide and friend,
was a Godsend. He introduced us to his friends along the way, making us feel at home.
We learned Rio’s ropes from a pro and were able to travel all over Rio, protected, with the help of an angel,
Pedro, a fellow photographer, a Rio expert, a receiver of JJJ’s angel 4.2.2015
Tourists have gold necklaces ripped off their necks.
Women’s fingers have been cut off for wedding rings.
Cameras, laptops and iPhones make you an instant target.
Leave everything at home that you can’t bear to lose.
Don’t go on the streets after dark or you’re asking to be mugged.
If mugged, hand over whatever they want without a struggle.
We decided to leave all our jewelry at home. We made copies of our passports, visas and drivers licenses and put the copies in our suitcases and wallets. We hid our cash among our belongings and even made “fake” wallets for our backpacks. We put in a few fake photos, an expired library card and a few dollars. We could afford to lose these if we were mugged.
Landing in Rio de Janeiro mid morning, we gathered our backpacks and collected our suitcases at baggage claim. It was time to ward off all the thieves and muggers whom we’d been warned. With some Brazilian reais (we’d made a currency exchange at JFK before leaving for Rio,) passports and credit cards hidden in our waist belts, we headed out to the street to find a cab.
We’d been warned that foreigners, especially Americans, may not always get a fair rate when hiring a Brazilian cab. Neither of us speak Portuguese, so that instantly made us feel a little more vulnerable. However, we’d planned for this moment and knew we were looking for a Radio cab. They charge a fixed rate and are supposedly safe.
We found a Radio cab and jumped into the cab’s backseat. We showed our cab driver a piece of paper with our Rio Airbnb address written on it. He nodded, and we were off – speeding through the busy streets of Rio de Janeiro. Our cab driver pointed toward a hillside and began to speak in broken English…”after tunnel, you see Christ Redeemer” and into a dark tunnel our cab traveled. Sure enough, once out the other side, I looked behind us, and there it was, the infamous Christ Redeemer statue, up on the hilltop, overlooking Rio. The statue is majestic and represents the Catholic faith that is dominant in this Brazilian city. Safety.
I whispered to LCP that our cab driver looked like a friend from home – a Brazilian version. We smiled when agreeing on the similarities. After about a 20 minute drive, we pulled up in front of our apartment building. Our driver warned, “no park here,” so he pulled over and unloaded our bags on the opposite side of the street. Our twenty-something, robust driver handled all our luggage and made sure that traffic was clear before we crossed the street – all the while rolling our suitcases for us. This was the perfect first encounter with the Brazilian people. A caring man who had our safety as a priority.
We entered the apartment building and waited in the foyer, in the company of the building’s door security officer, for our Airbnb’s owner to arrive. Pedro showed up about 5 minutes later. After a warm welcome, a kiss on each cheek, we followed Pedro to Apartment #2. A door lock and two deadbolts later, we were in our modern one room apartment where we’d live for the next 6 days. Pedro showed us around the apartment, gave us instructions on the safe, told us to turn off the A/C when leaving the apartment or when showering (the transformer is too weak to handle both the shower and A/C at once) and handed us the keys. Pedro suggested places to go for dinner and for a morning juice. He warned us to not keep our cameras or phones out in the open when we are on the streets. We felt safe with him. He is a photographer, too, so he showed us some of his work that he has on his phone. We were immediate friends.
Our fear of the city, now shadowed by the people who we’d been introduced, lessened. Like any other foreign country, we were outsiders and needed to respect the culture that we were visiting.
Yes, we had to be smart about how we traveled, but we didn’t have to be victims.
Kindness and respect are universal languages, as is a thumb’s up.