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.
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.
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 Montréal 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.