LLG Travels: Rio de Janeiro by Night

by Sasha Wilkins on July 15, 2012 · 25 comments

Rio de Janeiro at night

It’s late, past 2am, and I have just come in from sitting in a steamer chair on the balcony outside my bedroom at the Hotel Santa Teresa in Rio. With my feet up on the wrought iron rail, I have been watching the bats flit through the trees, whilst Christor Redentor stands bathed in light far off to my left and, in front, the city lies spread out beneath the hill of Santa Teresa where I am perched.

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Although I’ve been here for six days, it’s one of the very few times I’ve visited a new city (and, in this case, a new country and a new continent) and not felt like I have grasped its basic essence. I suppose that’s partly because I was in the bubble of a conference room and a corporate hotel for much of it, but it’s also because there is so much to understand here, such a complicated history that has shaped its people, architecture and way of life: colonialism, empire, slavery and, above all, a melding of so many cultures: indigenous, African, French, Dutch, Portuguese over the past three hundred and fifty years or so.

Rio de Janeiro at night

I’ve also been enormously hampered by the language barrier. My second language is French which on occasion is the key to a new country, is wholly useless here. (In Marrakech at New Year it was was vital, meaning I could converse with everyone, opening up the city to me, as it did in Montreal in January.) I have only one word of Portuguese – obrigada, (thank you) which is helpful, but gets me precisely nowhere, and very, very few people speak English.

I can’t chat to cab drivers, order food successfully in restaurants, get served properly in shops, learn new things, and it has been continuously frustrating. Each morning I have resorted to writing my planned various destinations in capital letters on pieces of paper to hand to cab drivers so I have a chance of getting to the right place, which both kills spontaneity and the possibility of garnering new recommendations.

I have met some enchantingly friendly Brasilians, but also some staggeringly rude & dismissive locals working in bars & restaurants, which hasn’t helped me feel welcome here. I keep worrying that I have unwittingly transgressed some widespread local custom or form of politesse.

It also hasn’t helped that I have been on the receiving end of a continuous flood of safety warnings, from the hardcore security risk matrix provided by the conference organisers, detailing the 1-10 likelihood of various threats including ‘express kidnappings’ and carjackings, to the oft repeated advice from, well, everyone I meet, to not walk anywhere quiet or dark on my own.

For someone like me who pretty much only travels alone and who is therefore normally pretty gung ho about personal safety, having this unwarranted drip feed of security concerns has added an extra level of twitchiness, and made me less willing to venture out alone after dark from my hotel to eat, take public transport (explicitly forbidden by the conference organisers) or use ATMs.

It’s on trips like these, that I curse my pale skin and blonde-ness – I stick out everywhere like a sore thumb, and it makes me less likely to strike out on my own as I am quite clearly identifiable as a tourist. Yesterday I wanted to walk to the cathedral after spending the afternoon in the National History Museum  (a brilliant insight into the country). I literally walked across the road and turning a corner was immediately met with a urine stink, a pile of sleeping bodies and three men approaching me from different directions in a distinctly unfriendly manner.

I scarpered quicktime back to the main road and the museum.

This contrast is a fact of life in Rio, and it takes some getting used to. Maybe if I was not alone, it wouldn’t be an issue, but I am and it means I have spent a considerable amount of time (& money) in taxicabs. They are cheap here, relatively – the average fare has been around $R18 about £6 for quite long journeys, but it soon mounts up.

On the plus side, this feeling that I have skated over the surface of Rio has made me all the more determined to return. But not on my own.

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

Kerry July 15, 2012 at 04:00

I am so glad you have heeded those warnings, they sound so dire, but apparently, it’s not a safe city. We have had a friend from Rio staying (blonde by the way!) who described how beautiful Rio was but how security conscious they need to be all the time.

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LLG July 15, 2012 at 10:31

@Kerry: That’s interesting to hear. The only other city I have visited where the locals are as security conscious as the tourists is Capetown, but I definitely feel safer here than I did in South Africa. LLGxx

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Didyoumakethat July 15, 2012 at 05:22

I am so pleased you’ve written this frank account of your experiences here. I’d wanted to ask if you were going to venture into Rio beyond the conference (I am listening to a wonderful novel, Trash, by Andy Mulligan about three slum-dwelling street kids). I was curious, but timid about posing the question in a comment in case it came across as critical – which wasn’t the intention. So I am really pleased to hear how frankly difficult it is to scratch beyond the surface.

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LLG July 15, 2012 at 10:35

@Didyoumakethat: Oh please, do always ask! I would have been so annoyed with myself if I had just holed up in a hotel for the duration of my stay.

I think if I return, I will arrange to meet up with Rio residents, so I can get a proper look into the city. (My best friend S has a legion of friends here and I really shld have taken up his offer to hook me up with them, as I think I would have had a very different experience. I just didn’t realise how tricky it would be on my own.)

I think it doesn’t help that Rio is so very spread out – Copa & Ipanema are a substantial drive from Centro and Santa Teresa for example.

I normally walk and walk and walk in new cities, but there are a lot of deserted streets and windy alleys around here, and I just don’t feel comfortable trotting down them alone.

LLGxx

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She Wore It Well Blog July 15, 2012 at 05:33

Experiences like that stop us from getting complacent about the world, it’s all good!

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LLG July 15, 2012 at 10:37

@She Wore It Well Blog: I think you are absolutely right. Rio has been a real eye opener on so many levels. LLGxx

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janie July 15, 2012 at 10:20

Please don’t see this experience as purely negative.
I felt quite sad reading that.
It could in fact re ignite the feeling that we are lucky to live in a relatively safe country with a general level of poverty far less than that in Rio.
It is often a cultural wake up call, at least that’s how I’ve found traveling affects me.
Its good to visit but makes you grateful to be home with family friends and loved ones again, and gives us insight into other peoples lives.
It makes me feel humbled
That at least is a positive experience?
Jx

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LLG July 15, 2012 at 10:29

@janie: I really didn’t think this piece came across as negative. The issues that have coloured my stay are largely to do with my lack of Portuguese and the problems inherent in being a single, female traveller.

After all, as you know, I travel incessantly, so culture shock isn’t something that bothers me at all.

As I said, I am looking forward to returning and getting to know Rio properly.
LLGxx

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Krista July 15, 2012 at 10:30

I’ve spent a lot of time in Ipanema and Leblon and did some things I probably shouldn’t have. I’ve walked from my hotel in Ipanema to dinner and back, 10 blocks each way, late at night. I’ve walked from Ipanema to Copacabana, along the beachfront. The only thing I had going for me on these occasions is keeping to lively streets with lots of restaurants and bars and carrying no valuables on me. I was totally fine and nothing happened to me and I did not feel unsafe, but I still probably shouldn’t have done it!

Hope you were able to find some more veg-friendly fare!

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LLG July 15, 2012 at 10:44

@Krista: I have to say that I wandered a lot around Ipanema and Leblon (for non-Rio savvy readers, Leblon is the most upmarket area of the city with a lot of very ritzy stories & restaurants), and I also did that beach walk too, sans valuables! I didn’t do it late at night tho. The conference was held at the Copa Palace right on the beach, so I had plenty of time to explore around there.

I never at any point felt unsafe in any of these districts, but certainly didn’t carry anything with me, – and I have a selection of what I think of as non-messaging sundresses – totally plain, totally unsexy, neutral colours that I use on trips where safety may be an issue.

My problems were more in areas like Santa Teresa, Centro where there are fewer people around generally – and comparatively very very few tourists. LLGxx

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desiderata July 15, 2012 at 12:56

It sounds like it’s been a rather mixed experience for you. But I think that’s a good thing, as others have said, and all part of the travel experience, which is all about broadening one’s horizons and expanding the mind, rather than necessarily about churros and cobblestones. I was in West Coast US just before the election, in late-ish 2008, and saw and experienced some dicey stuff – like taking local buses in LA, and walking the streets of SF’s Tenderloin at night, and now, I don’t remember how uncomfortable they made me, but rather, how the experiences opened my eyes to lives and experiences you don’t see on HBO. I hope that something or someone in Rio affects you the same way. Oh, and I read a great book on Rio by an Australian woman who lived there for a few years: Chasing Bohemia, by Carmen Michael.

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LLG July 15, 2012 at 13:41

@desiderata: er, yes, it has, that ‘s exactly what I said. But your entire comment leaves me completely mystified.

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LLG July 15, 2012 at 13:30

I have to say I am becoming increasingly flummoxed and patronised by some of these comments. Why the belief as though I am walking around with my eyes closed? Many of you are regular readers. You know I travel incessantly in all manner of places and cultures. My horizons are as broad as they could possibly be already: I stay everywhere from backpacker hostels to five star hotels, travel in rickshaws and in town cars, eat at roadside shacks and in, frankly, obscene luxury. In essence: I try to experience everything I possibly can to see how a country ticks. This was a piece on the difficulties of immersing yourself in a culture where you don’t speak the language, don’t know the cultural mores. and are a sole female traveller. That’s it!

(A feeling really quite cross and about to start kicking the wall with frustration. Am I really that bad a writer?) LLGxx

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Elisse July 16, 2012 at 09:17

@LLG: LLG, I am so glad you wrote this post and I do not at all believe you are traveling with your eyes closed. One of the reasons I love your blog is because you don’t just Instagram every photo so it looks picture-perfect, and you don’t only write about the cutesy things. This post was very honest, as it should be, and of course you can’t help the fact that you don’t speak Portuguese and you are a single female traveler.

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RasMbisi July 15, 2012 at 14:33

I think large parts of South America are difficult to go ‘off piste’, or get a firm handle on outside of tourist and expat areas (large parts of Africa too), language is a big part of it, and being a solo traveller definitly can be difficult. If you can’t chat to local people you can’t see below the surface and you can feel (unless very shallow) as though you are in a bubble.

Your writing is extremely clear, sometimes people just have their own agenda.

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desiderata July 15, 2012 at 15:29

I was aiming for commiseration, not to be patronising. But I can appreciate how you might have misread the intent. Your post made me remember and reconsider my own experiences of travel in insalubrious areas. Isn’t that the part of the purpose of commenting on blog posts – to filter our own thoughts and experiences through those of the author, and add to the conversation?

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sara July 15, 2012 at 15:40

Oh no, didn’t sound like you got the best out of it. Rio’s a difficult place to navigate for the first time and it’s best introduced by a local. Give me a holla next time you’re there I’ll happily show you the fun bits! xox

http://iheartrio.wordpress.com/

@Kerry:

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