Rio Risk

It was worth it. 

Worth the 900-email backlog, groggy hours of readjustment and endless errands that always seem to bookend planning a trip away. 

Preparing for and returning from travel can feel like a burden for sure but as author Mark Twain said, “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do that by the ones you did do,” so...we went!

In last week’s email I mentioned we’d just returned from Rio de Janeiro -- a vibrant city that’s a fusion of heady samba and bossa nova dancing, wild feathered Carnival costumes and shaking booties to loud, fast-paced drumbeats. 

Jammed with traffic, cosmopolitan Rio is tucked and sprawled between mountains, hosting both favelas (slums) and high-class apartment’s side-by-side. We visited the tourist must-sees (like traveling to the top of Corcovado Mountain to stand beneath the Christ the Redeemer statue) and witnessed feverish 2016 Olympic construction.

Since Rio is in the southern hemisphere it’s summer in February. We enthusiastically packed our bathing suits. We found that the beach is a magnet; every day groups of people in brightly colored thong-inspired bikinis and speedos crowd onto the sand for footvolley (no hands), surfing and sun soaking. My husband muttered, “Some people shouldn’t be parading around in thongs!” but you’ve got to appreciate a culture that exuberantly ignores the photo-shopped fake body standards of fashion magazines.

No one truly experiences Rio without basking on the beach.

No one truly experiences Rio without basking on the beach.

I don’t do skimpy. My bathing suit had more fabric than string but it didn’t matter, the citizens of Rio (they call themselves Cariocas) agreeably shuffled over to give us some beach-umbrella room:  All sun worshippers welcome.

Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world (by land area). So going to Rio and saying we know Brazil is like going to New York and saying you know the U.S. Our week-long visit barely scratched the surface but we had a Carioca tour guide, Wagner (pronounced “Vagner” - like the composer) who gave us his own shorthand on understanding his country. “All you need to know,” he explained, “Sao Paulo is for financiers, Brasilia (the capital) is for bureaucrats, and Carioca is for the smart.” 

He told us a story to prove the point.

Rainforest Lesson
When Wagner was in his 20s he found work near the Amazon rainforest with a team of men from the state of Amazonas in central Brazil. Remember Wagner is a city-raised Carioca, born in Rio, but high unemployment drove him far from home to find work with a group of country guys cutting back thick vegetation along roads. As Wagner tells it, he was able to show them just how smart Cairocas are. 

On one of the first days out as a new member of the crew, Wagner joins the men on a drive into the rainforest. Their truck halts, the men spill out of it and they are alongside a riverbank where they come face-to-face with a 7-foot black caiman, lying stone-still in a patch of sunshine. In the U.S, we are more familiar with alligators, but in Central and South America they are called caiman, notably distinct from their alligator cousins because they have longer, more slender teeth.

“It’s Avo!” one of the men calls out (grandfather in Portuguese).

“A grandfather...’ Wagner thinks. The caiman isn’t moving. Wagner strides over to it and stands a few feet behind its tail. Avo lies motionless; his four feet nestled into the undergrowth, his eyes open by a mere slit. 

Wagner takes a step nearer and pokes at the tail with his boot. No reaction.

Wagner steps closer and he is alongside the tail. He leans down and strokes it -- a spikey, tough grey-black skin. Avo doesn’t move.

Now Wagner steps between Avo’s feet and stands alongside his body. Leaning over he strokes Avo’s back, sliding his palms up and down the rows of overlapping bony points. Up close Wagner admires the armor, dropping his fingers between its grooves...

Sharply, viciously, the caiman’s tail whipsaws away while Avo’s head sweeps forward! Wagner hears “snap, snap” as he jerks back, Avo’s jaws closing on the air inches from his nose!  Wagner stumbles back -- he said like a cartoon character with rapid, teeny backward tippy-toe steps -- not stopping until he slams into the side of the truck, his body shaking. His fellow workers explode in laughter!

We are laughing too. Brazen, foolish...I think we are remembering ourselves in our 20’s. “Carioca’s are smart,” Wagner concludes, smiling. 

Underground Beach Culture
Wagner himself is a grandfather, though a dark-haired youthful one. Surprisingly, in contrast to the beach culture of his beloved Rio, he lives next to the Tijuca Forest, claimed to be the world’s largest urban forest. It sits inside the city limits and splits Rio into northern and southern zones.

Wagner called the forest the air conditioner of Rio since its nearly 13-square-mile evaporation of water breathes relief into Rio’s muggy temperatures each day, cooling the temperature of its surrounding areas as much as 16 degrees. Monkeys, toucans and snakes (we saw a boa constrictor!) – about 200 animal species in total -- live inside its lush greenery.

Juan, Wagner and I pose outside the famous Copacabana Palace in Rio.

Juan, Wagner and I pose outside the famous Copacabana Palace in Rio.

When Wagner gave us a walking tour of the forest -- we’d jeeped into its interior -- his English fluency took on a deeper dimension, reciting flora and fauna names with such description and context that we our imaginations lit up in his descriptions. Light-hearted, always smiling, imagine an energy from Wagner that seemed to know no limits, so that even on the way back to the hotel, the tour over but our jeep caught in a long traffic delay, Wagner continued his animated conversation. 

So we were curious about life beyond the tourist’s curtain. 

“I love Americans,” he said, “Because I will always be grateful for Jimmy Carter.” He recounted how he believed President’s Carter’s defense of human rights and denouncement of persecution and lack of a free press in Latin America -- especially in a 1978 visit with Brazil’s military dictator General Ernesto Geisel -- critically strengthened the underground movement’s resolve to end military rule. 

Wagner described how General Geisel’s dictatorship forbid freedom of expression and criticism so he outlawed groups of three or more to gather. “So what did we do?” Wagner shared, “We met on the beach!” He smiled, “No one could forbid that!” Wagner and friends met at Beach Station #9 on Ipanema Beach, under an innocuous Uruguay flag. It was in the late ‘70s and ‘80s that he and others sorted through ideas to open up chinks of weakness in the dictatorship. Military rule ultimately ended in 1985. 

Many years later, a friend in the Beach Station #9 group, Lula de Silva, became Brazil’s first elected left-wing president, serving two terms (2002 - 2011). Wagner pointed out Beach Station #9 as we drove by it. The Uruguay flag is still flying. 

Common Ground
We briefly saw Wagner again after the jeep ride. He hosted another group tour; we ran into him unexpectedly at the airport on our way home -- kisses on the cheek for me, a slap on the back for my husband.

For me, however fleetingly, meeting Wagner is an example of one of the best parts of travel. Right in the places where people and culture seem so different, behind the communication barrier of unfamiliar language or the awkwardness of a strange custom, there is common ground.

I know it’s a cliché but following our visit I did feel that I’ve taken our democratic freedoms for granted; I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to meet someone who does not. The stories and ideas shared in this bi-weekly newsletter are about pushing through boundaries and the edge of limitation. Little did I realize when packing my bathing suit, we’d find such a story in Rio.

At the beginning of this article I gave you just half of Mark Twain’s quote about travel. Here’s the entire citation:

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines and sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

Where’s your next trip? If you feel like it, drop me a note with the next place on your bucket list via email or Comments.

Meanwhile, as they say in Brazil, “Obrigada!” (Thank you!)