This trip tracked a line between one point and another in my life. It was a meaningful experience in many different ways, a journey from an old to a new me, a chance to land in a completely new perspective of life, time and space.
Rio de Janeiro is not an easy city and you need to be aware of it. If you ever decide to travel there, especially coming from Europe like I was, it’s better to forget all your common standards (every kind of!), change your mindset and the way you look at the things. Once you decide to meet Rio de Janeiro, it’s good to know that you need to be strong enough to see what is going on, but not too emotional: as European or at least a visitor from a privileged country you might end up thinkin’ a lot, thinkin too much. Let me tell you a thing: don’t ask too many questions. Don’t try to make the difference. Because the best thing you can do in a city like RJ is to respect the social habitus, follow the rules, stay safe, don’t make too many comparisons with your own country or with the system you are used to. Enjoy everything you can enjoy and don’t push your limits if you feel overwhelmed. Because RJ can be intense. Very intense. It takes you a lot, but it also gives you some things you will always carry in your heart.
The social system in South America has nothing to do with the European standards. The middle class does not really exist. The class and social differences are pretty evident, you can “touch” this gap every time you walk around. But as tourists or visitors we shouldn’t judge or claim anything. If we really want to engage to improve the system, we need to do a different journey with different aims and projects. I am telling you this because I spent some times trying to fix the environment into my European references or standards. I tried to answer some questions, getting some frustration back sometimes. But it doesn’t help. We can’t change or save the world when we only travel for two weeks to a place we don’t really know. So I just tried to enjoy the city with all the bad and the good. I let Rio de Janeiro get into me and break through my soul as an amazing life experience.
It’s not so easy to write about Rio. When I throw back to this trip, I see the colours, I hear the sounds, I feel the tastes, I remember some faces, I walk back the streets, I get lost in the sound of the Ocean, I spot the sunsets and the city’s views. I go deep into the feelings I got, the sensation of being in a fully unknown place and culture. It’s a mix of many flashes and memories that crowd together in my mind, making hard to translate them. In this post I am going to write about my travel experience more than any specific detail about neighbourhoods or useful travel information. I am sure you can find this on a good travel guide or other blog post. I really want to share my experience and tell about how this city entered my heart with its soft arrogance.
AN INTENSE HUMANITY
Rio de Janeiro is a kind of city that slaps you in the face and wakes you up from a quiet – almost boring – life. Because when you go down the street and jump into the deep of its life, unless you’ve been living in an even louder city and you’re used to it, well… Rio it’s a chaos of colours, people, voices, sounds, smells, multiple situations. You can find yourself drunk while walking around and trying not to miss a detail of what’s going on. The humanity is intense. People are people. Human beings. On top of their quality of being authentic. I am used to hang around Berlin where almost every single person tries to exhibit a certain style, attitude, express a trend with an outfit, represent a status through a specific job or professional activity. There is a diversity, a multicultural vibe but sometimes it feels a little bit forced. I got the feeling that some people are not comfortable with showing their truth. I feel like we all have to perform something, someone, a style, a way of being, a kind of “I AM THIS”. No matter what, no matter if rich or poor, fine or casual, traditional or eclectic.
In Rio I haven’t really seen something like this. I don’t want to say that all the people – not in Berlin, nor in Rio – are like this but I want to report what my impression was. Walking the streets of many neighbourhoods in Rio I felt a sense of simplicity. Men and women were direct in their way of “being”. Sometimes even too much. People dress very little because of the temperature and the clime, walk around in opposite directions, meet each other and talk loud, scream and ask for your attention moving hands and arms.
There are people of every colour, every nationality. The social gap is clear, bad, tough to watch. Poor people – most of the time black people – are on the street, sleeping on the floor, covered by old paper boxes. Thin. Too thin. Hungry. Too hungry. High like a fuck because a dose of crack is cheaper than a meal. Black people clean the shoes of white rich men out of the restaurants. A skinny mum looks for food carrying his baby, empty eyes, lost. A young woman get excited because another woman just bought her some food. It’s the success of her day. In the Metro they run over each other to get a seat. Because they’ve spent the day working hard, lots of hours. And they still have to travel a lot before going home, usually in the North of the city, where poverty and precarity are real.
In the Centro you literally fall in an storm. Men and women with their stands on the edge of the streets scream loud and louder to sell small products. It’s their job. Everyone does his marketing by himself, using the voice, trying to be stronger and louder than the other. The brasilian accent is soft but can turn to be tough, violent, in the ocean of voices and people that walk, move, go ahead across the Rua Uruguayana, Avenida Presidente Vargas. In this expression of humanity you see a new world. A different one. You can meet people asking you to buy them food. They don’t have anything. They look bad, sometimes scary. And you would like to cry, turn away, stop assisting on how tough can be living in this world sometimes. You ask yourself why your privilege is not the one of those people – fucked up by drug and poverty.
But you also see the beauty of being happy with less. People dancing and singing on a Sunday morning, eating a Tapioca Crepes at the local street food market (check the one in Gloria on Sunday morning), drinking millions of beers and sitting together outside the smallest barzinho with friends, enjoying life and samba in a way that you probably don’t know, you probably never experienced before. Young men and women or group of families with children having fun on the beach, enjoying the sun, the good weather, a Sunday off from work. You wonder how it’s possible to be so rich with so little.
Humanity in Rio is probably the richest view I’ve taken from there. An experience on itself that made me think a lot, helping me to go back with a new perspective about life.
A MAGNIFICENT NATURE
Rio is surrounded by mountains and by a magnificent subtropical forest. The city develops where the nature made it possible, grabbing some space near the sea, growing vertically up to the sky. The space for artificial construction is reduced. The impression you might have walking around is that Rio tries to slot together between mountains, forest and sea. The tropical trees with huge roots and nubbly trunks seem to eat the streets and the space, popping around every corner and impose their presence all around. On the side of the mountains is where the biggest favelas of the South America earn space. If you sit on Ipanema beach, looking at the Dois Irmaos, you can see the beauty of the area, tourists and carioca moving around and suddenly the favela of Vidigal climbing the side of the mountain. It hurts. It was an iconic moment of my experience there. On the other side of the same hill is where the Rocinha begins, the biggest favela and one of the most dangerous area of Rio de Janeiro.
AVOID THE FAVELA TOURS. Many tourists in Rio like to do a tour in the favelas. This is one of the most controverse experience when you travel to RJ. I highly recommend NOT TO DO IT. It’s not safe because of multiple conflicts between police and drug gangs. This form of tourism is not respectful nor sustainable. By visiting a favela you do not support the local community. Indeed you increase the speculation on poor people who do not get any advantage out of this activity. When you decide to take a tour in a favela, you don’t only put yourself in a dangerous situation but also show a deep disrespect against the people who live there.
Going back to the natural beauty of Rio, I loved the Parque Lage and the Jardim Botanico. There you can access the first area of the Amazonic Forest and it’s simply breathtaking. The colour and the intensity of the environment are difficult to be described. High and thick forest welcomes the visitors, at the feet of the mountains covered by even thicker vert. The sound of tropical birds risings and you can smell the humidity melt to the earth and the plants. The Parque Lage is an ancient indigenous location with a little pool in the Atrium.
If you happen to visit the Jardim Botanico and the Parque Lage, take a tour with the Metro na Superficie from the Botafogo station to the Jardim Botanico stop. The area is very picturesque. A very urban and residential corner of Rio, with shops, markets, small bars where to enjoy a Caipirinha or some local food. Near the Rua do Jardim Botanico there is a small restaurant I recommend to have a drink in, the Emporio Jardim, a lovely bistrot with tasty hamburgers and typical brasilian food.
A tour around the Lagoa is also a must. The lagoon behind Ipanema is a lake inside the city. In the summer you have many cafés and restaurants where to sit and have a beer in front of the water, an alternative option out of mainstream locations. You can do some aquatic sports and also rent a boat to chill in the middle of the lake.
The Ocean was for me the most beautiful element of the city. Once you have spent some time at the Copacabana beach, let’s move to Ipanema and pray to stay there forever. I am not prepared to write about the force and the beauty of the Ocean. I cried and felt alive in front of it. I felt a sense of freedom and life that I’ve never felt in my life. The colour and the force of the waves crashing against the water-line empowered my soul, after backing down and running ahead again and again. This deep sound coming from the inside of the earth never stopped, talking about time and space, showing a higher power, reminded me the presence of mother nature in its greatest form.
A NEW BEAUTY
Rio does not fulfil the common European or Western standards of beauty or aesthetic and this is what firstly breaks your comfort zone or European expectations. The world there seems to be left over at least 20 years ago. Sometimes even earlier. The atmosphere and the architecture look like they stayed the same since 20, 30 years. The shopping centre have no windows, but neon lights and plastic or golden iron infix. The beauty is somewhere else. It’s a slowly beauty that impacts you day by day. Not immediately. Not directly. It’s a beauty that stays inside of your head after some time. It’s a vibe that becomes alive in form of Saudade, when you’re far away, already at home.
LOST IN THE CONTRASTS
Poverty. Richness. Extreme beauty. Horror vacui. Politeness. Inhumanity. Hospitality. Racism. Joy for life. Classism. High modern palace right back to old decadent flat with no electricity or water. Songs and Samba. Silent request for food or money. This is Rio. A segment of a whole world full of differences and unfairness. A segment of a system that should teach us to do better while we live. A moment that should make us aware about how deep the inequality still is.
A CHARMING RHYTHM
Rio de Janeiro never sleeps. Never stops. Its heart keeps pulsing every time, people and voices, humanity and nature just mil around and offer no break. Silence doesn’t exist. It’s like a circle, from the morning to the evening, from North to South, from voice to voice, Rio never closes its eyes and never stops telling the stories of its people, its soul, its good and bad. The rhythm can make you tired. You end up feeling overwhelmed by the movements, the voices of people, the colours of the streets, the busses, the crowd, the sound of the sea. If you’re at the beach, the vendors want you to buy every kind of food, clothes, drinks, bikinis. Life is getting real in Rio de Janeiro. The light, the voice, the people. Life is pure, at its most authentic side. The music, the beats, the sounds of a city that is always alive. It takes everything from you and you want to take everything from it, but sometimes you feel like it’s too much. You’re not prepared. You’re not used to it.
But when you’re gone you find yourself asking why you are already far from it. Why this beautiful chaos is not there anymore, bringing you closer to the meaning of life, to the small but vital things of your existence. Why can’t you go to the Bip Bip and listen to some Samba live, drinking your chopo and hope that Alfonso (the owner!) does not get too angry if you talk too loud?
There is much more to say about Rio de Janeiro, but I will stop (for now). I haven’t really talked about good places where to eat and drink, the best way to move around the city, what to do to avoid bad or unsafe situation or about other incredible things to do if you’re in the city. But I think that the best way to write about a city is through our feelings. The human side of an experience is what makes it real. If I ever convince you to visit Rio, drop me a line. I wish I could go back soon! Stay tuned to know more about Rio in my next posts!