Monday, May 30, 2011

What I Wish I'd Known a Year ago Today

It was a year ago today that a cab driver outside Rio’s Galeão International Airport showed me the number “60” on his cell phone to indicate the fee he would charge to drive me to my hostel in Ipanema. As he wove maniacally through the highway traffic, past haphazardly constructed favelas stretching to the horizon in every direction, I admit to feeling both giddy and nervous, and not just because I didn’t share his apparent death wish.

“Ipanema?” he asked enthusiastically. “Você gosta de meninas?”

Did I like girls?

“Sim, sim,” I nodded, flexing my caveman-like Portuguese. “É bom.”

“São boas!” he corrected. “As meninas são muito boas!” He pounded the wheel at “muito.”

My first lesson from a native speaker.

When he dropped me off at the hostel, I left him a generous tip, not sure whether this was customary (It isn’t.), and then stood there next to my suitcase, exhausted from the overnight flight, taking in the sunny, pleasant scene on Rua Vinícius de Moraes and thinking, “Holy sh*t. I’m in Rio de Janeiro.”

Aside from taxi-tipping custom, there are a multitude of other things I wish I’d known about life in Rio on the day I arrived. Here are a few:

On the subject of tipping, restaurant tips are 10 percent, and they are included in your bill. Here I was, thinking the waiter at the restaurant up the street from my hostel was always so happy to see me because he was really into customer service. It took weeks before I learned that I had been tipping him like 20 percent on bills that had already included his gratuity. After that, I stopped eating there because I didn’t want to disappoint him but also didn’t want to keep ripping myself off. He continued to wave hopefully every time I passed.

Also, at restaurants and in general, while drinking the tap water is inadvisable, it’s safe to take ice in your drink, eat leafy greens and brush your teeth with the tap water. Health experts in the States make it sound like if you get a little water in your mouth while showering, you’ll end up with a belly full of parasites. Accordingly, at first, I brushed my teeth and washed my fruits with bottled water. When I first used tap water to brush my teeth as a last resort, I half expected my then-new girlfriend to refuse to kiss me. Instead, she took great offense at the idea that I had been using bottled water on my toothbrush, as if Brazil were some disgusting, third-world mud hole.

“But my doctor told me to,” I said.

“I don’t wanna to meet your doctor!” she replied, incensed.

But when you do finally get that terrible, cramping, crippling case of diarrhea, just view it as a rite of passage and let it pass, so to speak. After three days of eating only fiber and bananas, I found myself making my most strenuous attempts yet at Portuguese, as I tried desperately to schedule appointments at area doctors’ offices, none of which had anything open in the next week or two. With a little internet research, though, I learned that about half the people who travel to South America from the U.S., Canada and Western Europe endure this little unpleasantry sometime in the first month. It’s a sort of brutal, three- to seven-day inoculation.

Do not, however, allude to your malady in Portuguese class, or your teacher may make it a topic of discussion, in order to teach words like “barriga” (belly), as opposed to “estómago” (stomach). The Brazilian sense of propriety does not always line up with that of us northerners, and a general rule is that they are quite comfortable with anything to do with their bodies. Fortunately, I have a sense of humor.

And yes, it’s safe to go out after dark. The days were short when I arrived, late in the Brazilian autumn, and I needlessly lived like a hermit for the first week or so. Most of the danger stories you hear in the U.S. are greatly exaggerated.

To discover what’s safe and what’s not, watch what the locals do; don’t listen to what they say. Cariocas tend to exaggerate danger as much as they exaggerate anything else. When I once mentioned in my Portuguese class that a classmate and I were thinking of attending a boat party that evening, the teacher became alarmed, saying the ocean was very choppy that day and the boat might capsize. I looked at her incredulously, asking if it was a regular occurrence around there to have hundreds of partygoers cast into the ocean. No, she said. But it could happen.

A girl who was taking Portuguese classes from the landlady in a house where I lived in Santa Teresa once complained to me that she was having trouble deciding where to move because everyone in Copacabana said Santa Teresa was dangerous, while everyone in Santa Teresa said Copacabana was dangerous. The bottom line is that any Carioca will tell you, in all sincerity, that everywhere they don’t regularly go and anything they don’t regularly do is very dangerous and should be avoided. Their neighborhoods and daily routines, on the other hand, are quite safe. If they live in or around a favela run by drug traffickers, they’ll tell you how thankful they are that brutally enforced gang law grants them a security that can’t be found in Ipanema.

They’re all both right and wrong, of course. One has to be wary in any neighborhood at any time of day. One of my English students, a surgeon, canceled class one day because he had just been robbed in front of his home in Barra da Tijuca, the land of gated communities without a slum or favela in sight. But no place is a lions’ den where one is sure to be robbed and savagely mauled upon entry. Generally, if normal, middle class-looking people go there, it’s safe enough.

And while we’re talking danger … beware the Brazilian women that inspired my cab driver with such ardor. For one thing, they tend to be demanding, territorial and jealous. Or they may milk you for free drinks, blatantly and drunkenly coming onto you at Shenanigan’s Irish Pub, offering to let you buy them a beer and then stumbling off, slurring, “I’m so sorry, I just can’t do this. I just can’t take it.” Yes, this happened to me.

“Take what?” I asked, intrigued.

“This! All of this!”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “It’s a lot to take.”

Even more dangerous, though, is the fact that many of them are not only beautiful, but also charming, fun, daring and engaging. I went to the country expecting to sample the local beauty and return unattached. Within less than two months, I was thoroughly ensnared, and here I am now trying to navigate the difficulties of a long-distance relationship.

But they’re perils I’m happy to have encountered. 

 The Brazilian woman may be the most perilous of Rio’s many dangers.


  1. Oh Mike, haven't you learned the lesson from ltr's?

  2. Maybe he learnet so well that still doing the homework!

  3. Small doses of tap water is ok. Large doses will give you a stomach ache because we are not used to everything in it. Trust me.

    As for the cab driver from the airport, it costs R$35 to get into town. I'd go via yellow cab or at least pay a bit more inside at the booths. Screw the $$$ ones outside the door!

    And you are spot on about the danger. Anytime, anywhere! But there are certain spots where you need to be more careful at night due to poor lighting and such.

    I enjoyed your review! :)

  4. Mike, I accidentally stumbled upon your blog, and I'm really glad it happed! I'm brazilian, from Macaé - RJ, and have been living in Rio for like, 2 or 3 months. It's really great to read what people from such different cultures go throught here, and how they eventually fall in love with the people and the city despite all the shortcomings. Great blog!