all photos taken by Xavier Webber //
It’s been five full months since my life and mindset were dramatically changed. My seven-day trip to Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in April 2016 was a life changing journey that I’ve finally decided to share with my readers.
I’ve been going back and forth in my mind with whether or not I should share the journey. Who cares? Who wants to sit there and read about how awesome the trip was and how blessed I am, when I can just tell the people, who matter, in person?
That’s when it hit me… I have yet to truly explain in detail why this trip has changed my life. Aside from the typical “it was relaxing”, “the women there are so beautiful”, and “I would definitely go back”, I couldn’t put into actual words how much that trip has impacted my life, the way I think, and how differently I view and treat myself. So, here we are… (you) reading and (me) writing about the many ways my trip to Brazil introduced me to the most rare, natural and authentic form of myself.
Starting with the basics…
I think it’s beneficial to start off by mentioning that this was my first exotic trip without parental supervision. I’ve been blessed with a mother who sees the importance of traveling and values its knowledge, so I’ve been to amazing places including Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico all before the ripeness of 18 years old. Those vacations in my eyes were pure, innocent and simply something different than my normal life routine. It was also during a time in my life where everything I did was funded by my mother, so I’m sure you can understand how differently my thought processes must be by now and why this trip resonated in different ways. As opposed to my mom taking me on vacation, I took myself on a journey.
It’s especially important that I acknowledge the amazing group I went with–Xavier, Kiarah, Jebar–because they made the trip so much more meaningful without even knowing. Traveling abroad with people that are equally (if not more) as socially, politically, racially, economically, and spiritually WOKE as you is an indescribable feeling. And, Brazil was, honestly, the perfect location to visit for us “millennials” that are learning how to move through the corrupt ways of America. I’m not saying we didn’t relax, “vacay”, or party; I’m just saying, we all seemed to have the bigger picture in mind and that’s beautiful.
And, for those of you wondering I traveled to Brazil right in between their Carnival season and the beginning of preparation for the Olympics, so I got an insane deal on flights ($500 round trip instead of $800+) and the AirBnb split between four people ended up being $200-ish per person total (instead of per night at a hotel).
A lot of my family and friends were shocked to find out Brazil was the destination my group chose. While, it was more of a planned-trip for my best friend Xavier (as a birthday gift to himself), I definitely went all out on a whim. I was blessed to have received my first “big” income tax refund and blessed to have an aunt push me into taking a vacation. Frugal ol’ me was ready to chuck the entire refund into my savings because… hello! That’s amazing. She, however, opened my eyes to the whole, “you’re young, this is the time to do it, you can still save some of it, etc. etc. etc.” After one lengthy convo, a couple of back and forth decisions, and a text to Xavier (You’re still going to Brazil, right?) I had purchased my round trip flight within the next 48 hours. I will never, ever regret that sporadic decision.
I’m proudly a nerd, so, naturally, after getting all of my travel logistics together, I had taken myself to the local Barnes and Noble to get one of those “things to do in Brazil” books that included all of the “non-touristy” restaurants, shops, beaches, and parties (duh). It also had your common phrases, words, terms, questions, etc. in the back of the book translated from English to Portuguese. I read the book front to back the entire month leading up to the trip because (pro tip) you want to get familiar with where you are going, how they speak and what their cultural differences are.
I would say this was the beginning of my “changing self”. It’s really easy to go by your day to day with no regard to anyone around you. We get frustrated when tourists come to our city and ruin our flow or routine. I was putting myself in those shoes, now, by visiting somewhere that, politically, wasn’t doing too well, was struggling economically, and lacking in their progress with equality. Here I am, the tourist, eagerly anticipating the best time of my life, while the locals were trying to have their president impeached, scrap up their change to survive and catch a jooks to provide. The least I could do was read a damn book on how to say “hello”, “thank you”, and “goodbye”, so I don’t come across as a gringa just using Brazil’s extremely high value on the US dollar to my advantage. (Note: Americans are considered gringas/os in South America — not just Caucasians.)
Communication really is key…
I was taught how important language is. The fact that no one I came across in Brazil (aside from others that were too on vacation) knew English brought the thought into my mind that this is all they know… meaning, they could never come to America (if they could afford it) and do what I was doing–they didn’t even know Spanish! You see, I know basic Spanish and am fluent in English. Because I know how to translate my basic wants and needs into one other language, converting that into Portuguese (which is similar in many ways to Spanish) wasn’t as challenging as it would be for the Brazilians to speak anything other than Portuguese. It was in those seven days that I not only pushed the shit out of my Spanish tongues (because I, luckily, came across a handful of Spanish speaking workers from other areas in South America), but I also appreciated my education. I’ve always been told people who know more languages are smarter, naturally, and now I get it. Communication is everything and it connects us to so much information, knowledge, cultures, etc. Simply knowing more than one language is a privilege. It’s an open door to other worlds and ideas. It’s a blessing, and it took me going to Brazil to learn, accept and appreciate that privilege, even if my Spanish isn’t the greatest.
Learning from living…
Coming from New York City, traveling in Rio actually ended up being a breeze even with the language barrier. For the sake of explaining, I’d like to consider Rio the “New York” of Brazil and the inner cities, such as Ipanema, Copacabana, Leblon, Barra da Tijuca, etc., the boroughs. Everything was a quick cab ride away; however, I made sure to take the one train line they had that connected you to all the different “boroughs”. It’s like, once you have that internal compass of traveling in the hustle and bustle of New York, any other city is rather easy to adapt to with some practice. I, personally, have a “thing” where I need to take the subway at least once in any city I visit, so this was really huge for me to do so in Brazil. After a while, the group wasn’t as interested in it anymore (I guess cabs were easier and you get to sight see on the way).
Traveling to the different “boroughs” helped me learn a little bit more about which were wealthier (Barra Da Tijuca) and which people flocked away from (Santa Teresa). Taking the train showed me where all of the beautiful brown and dark people came from in order to get their bronzed look on Copacabana Beach (where I stayed). Not that I think anyone’s life is drastically different from mine coming from The Bronx, but it was refreshing to see lifestyles that almost mirrored mine. My whole life I was the one to travel to all of the other boroughs to enjoy myself, meet friends, do cool things, etc. The Bronx was never the “place to be”, so I identified with so many of the Brazilians that were taking the train to simply hit the beach in a different neighborhood because theirs wasn’t desirable.
Also similar to many train lines in New York, the type of people that got on and off the train with each stop changed. I noticed at night there weren’t too many darker Brazilians out in Copacabana, and, instead, there were a lot of white or fair-skinned people (polar opposite compared to the day). Our group thought it was fair to assume the darker Brazilians did not live in the area we were at based on our train experiences, our night walks, and overall general observations. Did we sense some sort of racism there? Perhaps.
There was one night we were all walking around the neighborhood and a mother and daughter were walking towards us. As the mother got closer, she decided to get off the sidewalk and walk in the street (rather far away from us). It was apparent, she was afraid of the group because either a.) we could have potentially wanted to rob her or b.) she was afraid of dark skin. And, if it’s the latter, I’m sure it would have gone hand-in-hand with the former via her thought process.
Theft rates in Rio are extremely high. I’m talking, don’t walk around with your electronics out all willy-nilly and keep your purse close to your body, high. The videos you see online are real and it happens, and, while it’s nothing different than a lot of other places, it’s also nothing to ignore or take lightly while vacationing there. There were tips I read all over the Internet from travelers of all races and LOCALS. So, it would be fair, if she thought we would potentially rob her… I guess. It definitely, however, was a “uh, okay” moment.
Regardless, walking the streets at night, taking the train instead of cabs and really trying to immerse ourselves in their way of living just helped us get a better understanding of what it truly is like in Rio versus what we read about online. It far removed us from feeling or experiencing the trip as a tourist and really gave us the opportunity to LIVE like a Brazilian from Rio. To my surprise, it felt like home. It felt natural. It felt like… NYC? It was an indescribable feeling of security and familiarity in a third world country hundreds of thousands of miles away. I don’t think we would have received the same feeling had we not walked around at night, taken the train or any of the other adventurous things we did.
My negatives? aint so negative…
We “got got” a couple of times out there, which we were warned about prior; little things, like being overcharged for some shrimps on the beach, which made us wiser as the trip continued. We learned to haggle and bargain (even with a language barrier). We understood that for many workers this was their way of living and scamming silly Americans was easy. I mean, it’s not like it’s much different on Times Square (lol). There was a level of mutual respect: we get this is your hustle, but we also aren’t going to give you 100 reis for a scarf…. how about 60?
This aspect of the trip enhanced my ability to try and understand someone else’s struggle and reflect on whether or not mine are as detrimental as my New York state-of-mind leads me to believe. It’s really easy to get caught up in the negatives of our lives or what’s wrong/bad. Seeing all of these workers fully clothed, walking back and forth on a beach in 100 degree weather, carrying heavy ass bags, containers, etc. all to try and make a sale to support their lives or family was a big reality check. Is it really that bad that my office job isn’t the greatest? Is it really a struggle that my order at the restaurant wasn’t exactly how I would have liked. Was it really that bad that these people tried to scam us in the beginning of the trip? Every negative in our life is relative, and having a fresh set of eyes and seeing the way of living for others put my negatives into perspective.
It could always be worse…
Our trip to the most-talked about and historical place in Rio hit my heart and soul more than anything else I have experienced in life. The Favelas: a slum in Brazil within the “urban areas” first appearing in the late 19th century. These slums were originally built by soldiers who had nowhere else to live and soon became the homes of former enslaved Africans. Similar to gentrification in New York, all of the people who were pushed out of their areas (or had nowhere else to go) went to the favelas. I can’t even begin to explain how tight, compact and claustrophobic it was to walk through (one part) of the favelas. To put it into perspective: “census data released in December 2011 by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) showed that in 2010, about 6 percent of the Brazilian population lived in slums.” In 2011 the Brazilian population was 190 million people aka 6% equals 11.4 million people. Rio De Janeiro’s population alone in 2010 was 6.32 million. So, just imagine how much 6% of that in The Favelas looks like…
There were stray dogs and cats everywhere, kids everywhere, people everywhere… regular life was just here in these condensed units. We might have walked a minimum of 300 steps to just get to the middle point of where we were going (of course with a trusty tour guide). To think these people walk all of these steps (no, there’s no elevator) just to get to and from their house was mind blowing. Old people live there too, ya know. I had asked my tour guide, “so, what happens when people get old. How do they get what they need or move around?” His response: “well, they get other people to do it for them… younger people help out. But, yeah. For the most part they’re stuck in their house.” Now, just imagine how old people in America, who live in nursing homes, feel. Think about being stuck in a tiny NYC-apartment closet (like an actual closet) and having to stay in there for the rest of your life because you can’t really walk anywhere. There’s no leveled walking, everything is either a steep incline or intense downward position. Oh, yeah… gravity literally felt like it was sucking me down, as we were going down the steps.
I mean… just REALLY let that sink in. These people can’t leave. They can’t travel, they won’t know what it’s like to eat from fancy restaurants, or even shitty fast food places. They don’t know anything outside of the shack they live in. If people who grow up in any poor neighborhood in New York, Atlanta, Massachusetts, WHATEVER… If they think all they know is the hood and ghetto. They haven’t seen The Favelas. And, even with all of that anxiety I got just with the thought of having to live like that, or even the fact that these beautiful and sweet kids had to live like that… All I saw were smiles.
They aren’t moping or complaining about their living situations. They’re just… living. They’re making the best with what they have. And, it was really humbling. I mean, I talk a big game in New York about hustling and just really trying to survive, but I’m so privileged even with all of the struggles. I’m so blessed to have clean tap water, clean shower water, leveled streets, a family, an education, access to the Internet… If there was anything visiting The Favelas taught me, it was that life can ALWAYS be worse. Just when we think we’ve hit rock bottom, we can always crash and burn. The people living in The Favelas might not even think this is their worst, because they could actually just be killed for living there. I’m forever indebted to that historical and emotional part of Brazil, and, it’s honestly made me even more down to earth than I was prior to visiting.
Stay tuned for pt. II where I explore my self-worth, love, confidence and journey to fully accepting life as an independent.