Now that I’ve been back in the States for over 24 hours, the time has come for me to attempt to write a summary post of my trip to Rio. This task wouldn’t be easy for any trip; I love travel more than just about anything, and though some trips have been definitively better than others, all have been great learning experiences and full of fun stories to share. I find the task of summarizing Rio more than usually daunting. I have never felt so immediately and completely at home abroad as I did in Rio; it’s as if I were a carioca in a previous life.
I’m going to attempt to share lessons and general observations here, but there is so much to process, and I find myself so ill-equipped to put any of the Rio experience into words that it may not be possible to do this coherently, so I’m going to stick with bullet points; please forgive the fragmented nature of this post!
First, let’s go through the eight items on my pre-trip checklist:
- Devote an afternoon to eating feijoada: CHECK!
- Learn how to make the perfect caipirinha: CHECK! (two limes and two heaping spoonfuls of sugar crushed together with cachaça on top)
- Dance samba well with a hot Rio native: CHECK!
- Have a religious experience with Cristo: CHECK! (see below)
- Find out if Engov really prevents hangovers: partial CHECK
- Add a new bizarre food to my list: nope… didn’t encounter anything terribly crazy
- Speak as much Portuguese as possible: CHECK!!!
- Tour a favela: CHECK!!!
- Portuguese: Many people were curious/anxious about the implications of my limited knowledge of Portuguese. Although I didn’t find too many people who spoke English, in general I was pretty able to communicate – it’s always easier to understand than to speak, and I had just enough of the basics to be able to say what I needed to (albeit in pretty broken Portuguese). When in doubt, we supplemented with Spanish. (This led us to some lessons about which words are NOT the same in the two languages.) I started to get a better grasp of the pronunciation (which is definitely the hardest thing for anyone who speaks Spanish, as there are some significant differences), and by the end of the trip the language sounded much less foreign to me – listening to the radio in the taxis seemed more natural, like listening to Spanish.
- Cristo: So, I was raised Catholic and chose to be confirmed, but I haven’t been to mass since Easter of last year. I’ve become more than a little jaded with the insincerity and the politics of the Catholic Church, plus I find that mass just doesn’t allow me to practice my faith in a way that’s meaningful to me. That being said, I still have plenty of faith, and that’s probably why I loved Cristo so much. The statue was just so symbolic of my beliefs and experiences (and probably those of many people). My faith isn’t hugely Jesus-centric, but that didn’t matter. The physical presence of a higher power, even as a representation, was quite powerful. I loved knowing that no matter where we were in the city, we’d be able to see Cristo (from the right angle/without buildings blocking the view) and that He was there looking down on all of us. Even when we couldn’t see Him, we knew he was there. When we got through our unexpected favela adventure on Friday, I was convinced that it was because Cristo was taking care of us from up there on Corcovado! The Washington Monument just doesn’t do it for me.
- I’ve never met people so friendly. Despite the language barrier (and there really were not many people who spoke English), everyone we met was more than willing to help us – even just looking confused at the bus stop prompted multiple people to try to explain to us what we needed to do! Ironically, the least friendly people we met were the front desk employees at the hostels.
- I’ve also never met people so attractive. I said at the beginning of the trip that I thought Spain had the most attractive men, Venezuela had the most attractive women, and Italy had the most attractive general population. I think Brazil wins in all three of those categories, and part of what makes it so great is the diversity of the population. There’s been such a mingling of European, native, and African groups over the last century that there just isn’t a standard Brazilian look, and so many of the people in Rio were so tan that it was hard to tell where to draw the line between race and sun exposure!
- Ipanema wins as my new favorite beach in the world. As I mentioned, my previous criteria for the best beach were a) clear water, b) sand, and c) waves. Although Ipanema lacks the clear water, it fulfills the other two and wins major bonus points for the eye candy provided by its beachgoers… plus none of the other beaches served coconuts.
- I love the simplicity of Brazilian food. I told Stacey on the way back that I would like to try to maintain the simple diet we had in Brazil; something about the small set of staples and the simple yet robust flavors really appeals to me. We really just had the same food over and over: bread, cheese, ham, beef, açaí, beer, and caipirinhas. I did miss my vegetables (the first thing I ate when I got home was a bag of mixed frozen veggies), but other than that, I enjoyed our routine of grabbing some açaí and a sandwich roll in the late morning and then getting similar fare for dinner (once we realized the restaurants were expensive). I found myself thinking about all the extra things we put into food here and how unnecessary many of them are – like, why do I put sour cream and guacamole on my Chipotle burritos when the meat itself is so flavorful? Keeping things simple allows you to savor and appreciate each flavor; feijoada is probably the best example of that.
- The Brazilians are just so relaxed. This comes through in a lot of ways; I think it’s particularly clear when you consider what people wear to the beach. You have to be relaxed (at least relative to American standards) to wear thongs on the beach like it’s not a big deal! And even in favela Rocinha, where the residents have more to worry about than they have food to eat, we seemed to pass only happy people going about their business who still had the friendly spirit to greet us with “bom dia!” as we passed. We in the United States seem stressed about everything; the chill attitudes of those in Brazil and many other countries I’ve visited never cease to amaze me and make me wish that our culture could relax a bit.
- I think part of the reason for my stronger connection to Brazil might be because of its location on this side of the world. What I mean is that when I think about other countries I love, like Italy, they always seem more distant because life there happens six hours ahead of life here. Rio’s only an hour ahead; there’s something about the fact that I can look outside at the moon right now and know that people in Rio are seeing the same thing at the same time that just makes me feel closer to things there.
There just isn’t any place like it. I started reading one of my books about Rio (Rio de Janeiro: A City on Fire by Ruy Castro) on the flight back and highlighted a few passages in the introduction that seem to provide the words I can’t find on my own:
“A riotous display of hills and mountain ranges, beaches, inlets, islands, dunes, sandbanks, mangrove swamps, lagoons and forests, all this under an endless blue sky…. the Marvelous City; the land of Carnaval; and always, even if on the quiet, a kind of sexual Mecca…. Coming in to Rio is so spectacular that throughout the centuries, for anyone arriving by plane or ship, it has set off… alterations in perception…”
And finally, I feel like no one says it better than James Taylor. I listened to “Only a Dream in Rio” over 20 times during the course of our 8 days there, and I think this YouTube picture montage coupled with the song expresses more than I ever could: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGpS6yyNKK0&feature=related
I’ll tell you
There’s more than a dream in Rio
I was there on the very day
And my heart came back alive
There was more
More than the singing voices
More than the upturned faces
And more than the shining eyes…
But it’s more than the shining eye
More than the steaming green
More than the hidden hills
More than the concrete Christ
More than a distant land
Over a shining sea
More like a hungry child
More like another time…
Eight days wasn’t nearly enough – I literally didn’t see half the things on my list. I don’t know when I’ll be back, but it will be soon. I feel like part of me came home while I was there.