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Rio and Traveling Self-Indulgences

The following is a guest post by Ana Freitas. If you’d like to guest post on Go Backpacking, please read our submission guidelines.

Skateboarding bowl in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Skateboarding bowl in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The first thing a Paulista – you know, a Brazilian who was born in the state of São Paulo – notices when he or she goes to Rio for the first times is that the Cariocas, unlike us, live their lives properly. They actually enjoy it. And I’m not talking about parties (São Paulo’s nightlife is among the best in the world) or Carnival (we have ours, too).

It’s about life quality, about being able to wake up and run along the shore before going to work. It’s about working out and taking care of your body, and because of that, being proud of showing it off. About keeping it simple: in Rio, you can walk into a café or a snack bar at 2 in the morning, in your pajamas or in your bikinis, and no one will give a damn. And you’ll get natural juice, fresh baked snacks and a smile from the guy behind the counter for a reasonable price, considering Brazilian standards.

São Paulo has it’s beauties (and its beasts, surely) too, but cannot be compared to Rio in that matter – neither regarding natural beauties or people being so much more relaxed and fun about life itself. And apart from Rio’s reputation of being a violent city in Brazil, the second thing I noticed about it is, I rarely feel as safe in SP as I felt there.

Most of us – me and four other Paulista friends – had never been to Rio before, despite everybody’s advice, and we faced São Paulo’s traditionally heavy traffic in Via Dutra, before actually being able to hit the road. It felt like an adventure: I know it’s going to sound surprising, but Brazilians don’t usually travel inside their own country.

Among youngsters, there is no such thing as “travel culture.” Most of the time, it’s cheaper to visit Buenos Aires. And besides, when you turn 17, you’re expected to pick a career and try to get into university. Traveling to get to know far away lands is not affordable for the lower classes and considered, between higher classes, something you do once a year, when you have a vacation from your solid, good job, or from college. The exceptions, Brazilian backpackers inside their own country, are considered irresponsible, hippies or just plain crazy.

Well, we took the risk. After driving for six hours in the Via Dutra and getting lost in the Avenida Brasil, one of the most dangerous places in Rio, we finally arrived at our hostel, located inside a small, gated village in Ipanema. We parked the car and didn’t even take the bags out of the trunk before we decided we should, first of all, take a walk around to have a snack and get to know Rio on a Friday night.

We shouldn’t have, but we checked out the Copacabana area. It’s one of the most touristy places, and also, it’s full of prostitutes, drug dealers and “pivetes,” the young boys infamous for pickpocketing tourists. It’s the perfect symbiosis – the excentric mix, along with the beautiful beach, the prostitutes and the numerous hotels attracts the foreign visitors, while Copacabana’s native species, such as the poor boys and the drug dealers, feed from the tourists.

But it was 4 in the morning and, wherever the bad guys or the tourists were, it was not in Copacabana. It was the very emptiness of the deserted street that gave us the dimension of the beauty of Rio, even at night, and how the beach landscape and the buildings, all together, looked astonishingly beautiful.

Tired, we headed back to the hostel, that offered a very suffocating room for a not-so-cheap price. But it would have to do, since it was supposed to be a budget holiday; besides, the other hostels around had no availability. There was nothing we could do, and later we realized, we were lucky to stay there. Yeah, the rooms and the bathroom weren’t that great, but the staff were really helpful, not to mention the atmosphere of the place: something close to experiencing a UN youth congress right in the middle of Rio de Janeiro.

In other words: we barely heard a word in Portuguese during those four days. We were surrounded by young, open-minded people from every place in the world, from Europe to Bermudas, USA to Australia. We practiced Spanish, English, Italian, French, Dutch, Dannish, Russian and every language you can imagine, without leaving an area of about 200 square meters.

On our first day in Rio, the idea was to go to the beach in the morning and, later, walk from Ipanema to Copacabana and see the sunset from Arpoador, a tourist highlight in the city. We left early – at least for a sunset in Rio, at 3pm. And instead of Arpoador, we stopped by another mountain, that seemed to lead to a natural park with a square by its side.

View of Rio from the skateboard bowl

View of Rio from the skateboard bowl.

Turns out it was the Garota de Ipanema park, sided by the Praça do Arpoador, right at the end of Vieira Souto. There was a path to go up, and so we did and ended up finding a huge, very nicely graffitied skate bowl. And, lucky us, one of my friends had a skateboard. Truth is I had mine too, but it was a longboard, and I didn’t feel safe to drop a deep skate bowl with a huge longboard.

From up there, the view was awesome even for those who can barely do an ollie. You can just sit around and watch while the skaters fly surrounded by the beach and the sun in the horizon. That said, we weren’t the only people to think we found the most amazing, cozy open air skate park in Rio: a few boys apparently were already familiar with the area.

They were local young kids, about ten of them, from 6 to 16 years old, and they were messing around and having fun like only kids can do. The boys from Arpoador, as we later came to call them, were all black, tanned, and clearly residents of the suburban area. Dressed in underwear or swimsuits, with sand all over their bodies, they were using the bowls to play Capoeira, running inside it and throwing little dry fruits they picked from the trees to each other. And we watched, amazed, sharing their fun, seated by the edge of the bowls.

But everybody could feel something heavy in the air. Maybe it was just me, but fact the was, I was a little bit scared. They were the stereotype of the young kids who might rob tourists in Rio. Of course they were just playing around and speaking loudly, but in that context that could be interpreted not only as the natural need the teenagers have to draw attention, but as a desire to mark their territory.

We had our expensive, middle-class cameras, and everything about us seemed to scream WE ARE PAULISTAS. It was obvious, although we were speaking Portuguese, that we weren’t locals. But again, everybody seemed to agree silenciously that we couldn’t just walk away, for we were witnessing something fun and spontaneous.

Most important, that situation seemed to challenge us: were we gonna be the spoiled tourists who will take give in to their preconceptions about their destinations or the brave travelers that take the risk and whatever good or bad consequences it might bring?

Also, watching the kids amazed us because it’s something that would never happen in São Paulo – kids enjoying themselves at the beach, living like kids should do. In São Paulo, these days, children are raised in front of the television or the computer, whether because of the heavy, dangerous traffic, or because of the unsafe neighbourhoods. And we don’t have open, free leisure areas like the beaches in Rio.

Boys from Arpoador

The boys from Arpoador.

So I took the risk and started taking pictures. I knew it would be the final showdown, and my move would allow them the next one, whether it was talk to us in a friendly matter or rob us. And although they talked, their intentions were not yet clear. A 13 years old girl looked at me and yelled “Wow, fancy cam, mam.”

I just smiled, though I wasn’t still sure if by that she meant she wanted a) some kind of friendly approach b) the camera itself. The black piano in the compact camera indeed made it look fancy. I answered, “Yeah, it’s a beautiful camera, you wanna see the pics?” And that was the signal for them to gather around me and the camera, not to steal it, but to actually check on the pictures I took of them.

Both sides defenses lowered, the same girl – a bit too bossy and cheeky, yeah, but as you later learn in Brazil, that’s just how the kids that live in poor areas are, most of times – asked to borrow my friend’s skate, which he promptly offered, and showed impressive skills on the board. We asked them their ages, where they lived and took pictures of the (somewhat nice) tricks they were impressively able to perform on the skate.

The boys showed us a few crazy Capoeira moves and we stayed there, after the sunset, when the young ones had to leave because their  mothers were waiting for them. After a little bit more of chitchat, one by one, the older kids said goodbye and left the bowl. We did the same, just after them.

I know it might sound silly, but it was the nicest afternoon I had during my trip. Of course, later, I felt bad about being so suspicious, but you can’t blame me if you’re not Brazilian: that’s just how we are raised to be in the middle class. And I realized that sometimes you need to allow yourself some self indulgences, like doing stuff no travel guide would ever recommend. Maybe letting yourself go of some preconceptions and be around young, poor kids in Rio de Janeiro.

Lowering your guards and see what happens, you know? Even though it could be dangerous, sometimes every travelers should afford time to doing that. Your common-sense should always be with you, for sure, but so often, people travel in a paranoid mode, especially in Brazil, considering what the travel guides says about the country being unsafe, and cease to try what could end up being a pleasant afternoon.

Also, it made me realize that, unfortunately, São Paulo is not REALLY Brazil. Brazil is in the spirit of free kids in Rio, in the energy of the street Carnival in Pernambuco and Bahia. São Paulo, somehow, is the most important economics in the country, but so modern and developed that most of what makes it Brazil is lost in translation.

It doesn’t mean that you should not go to São Paulo. There’s a lot to see here too. But it’s probably the only place you’re not going to see what Brazil actually is, so please: never come only to São Paulo.


About the Author: Ana Freitas is a 22 years old Brazilian journalist who loves São Paulo, but the city has let her down so many times that she has decided to dump it and go look for a new one. She is now preparing to move to Holland for a year to work and travel.

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Saturday 24th of March 2012

Nao entendo - Is this writer really from Sao Paolo or does she have some kind of vendetta against the place? "Sao Paolo is REALLY not Brazil." Go to Vila Madalena on any Sunday and tell me it's not "fun", "carefree", "exciting." Oh, and Sao Paolo also has the best food and nightlife in the country and has beautiful beaches 1-2 hours away. Yes, it doesn't have the natural beauty of Rio, but there is something for everyone in S.P.

Signed, The Sao Paolo Tourist Board


Wednesday 7th of September 2011

Ha, so glad you were able to stuff away your privilege for a day to hang around poor brown magnanimous of you.

bluegreen kirk

Wednesday 9th of March 2011

I was actually planning a trip to Rio and some friends suggested that it might not be the safest place to go. Not that they had been there themselves just what they heard. Glad to get a second opinion from someone whose actually been.

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