By Paulo Nunes Maldonado
“Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the flight crew, let me welcome you to Rio de Janiero, Brazil. It is currently 5:23 PM local time and we have arrived with some beautiful weather. It is 85˚ degrees Fahrenheit, 29 degrees Celsius, with a slight 2 mile an hour breeze . . . ”
I began to zone out as I heard my dad trying to tell me something from three rows behind me.
“See that light at the top of that mountain?!” exclaimed my father.
“Yeah, what is it?” I responded.
“That’s Christ the Redeemer watching over all of us! We’re going to visit the statue tomorrow.”
I could barely contain my excitement. Christ the Redeemer, or Cristo Redentor as it is translated in Brazilian Portuguese, is a statue that is Brazil’s equivalent to the United States’ Statue of Liberty. I was excited to visit these major attractions that tourists generally flock to . . . but then I began to think about the Brazil that natives like my father experienced. Unfortunately, when only visiting a place for a few days, these must-see attractions often cloud the reality of a place.
Then the pilot cut into my thoughts again:
“We will be landing shortly, please remain seated with your seatbelts fastened until we have reached our gate and the Captain has turned off the Seat belt sign. Be sure to be extra careful when opening the overhead compartments as luggage may have shifted during take-off or landing . . .”
Just a few hours later, there was no place I would rather have been than right where I was. The radiating sun felt like an oven, broiling my skin while I swam and played beach volleyball at the beautiful beaches of Rio de Janeiro. And I was surrounded by smiles, joy, laughter and beautiful people everywhere I looked. “Was this just reality here? I know there has to be something I’m missing,” I thought to myself.
This wasn’t my first time visiting this city of dreams, it was my third, and I felt quite at home this time around. My second visit, as a young teenager, was the first one I could remember, and when I arrived at Ipanema Beach, I was shocked by the beach culture, which was vastly different than the one I understood in the United States. It appeared that in Brazil, “traditional” swim trunks as I knew them could have been illegal for all I knew, because I was the only one not wearing a speedo as far as I could see down either side of the beach. What was even more surprising was that traditional bikini bottoms for the ladies also seemed not to be widely popular.
Now, though, on my third visit, I was no longer shocked. In fact, I knew that the beauty of all of this was that despite me wearing different swim trunks and speaking heavily accented Portuguese, the locals were some of the most welcoming people I had ever encountered. Any group that I asked to join in on their soccer or volleyball games allowed me without hesitation! I fell in love with not only the warmth of Brazil, but the warmth of the culture and the people. It appeared that personal space bubbles didn’t exist as everyone greeted me with a hug and a kiss or two on the cheek. This was a solid day one in what was quickly becoming paradise for me. I was initially worried about how I was going to be received, as well as interactions I might have, but thankfully they were all positive.
The next day we began the long drive up to the Cristo. I asked if we could take the cable cars so that we would arrive at the top much quicker–but of course, because I asked, we decided to save the extra $10.00 per person and take the tour vans up the mountain. To me it didn’t seem like such a big deal, because when we are back in my father’s country he seems to be a little tighter about money, always reminding us of the humble roots he came from. What was so ironic about him making us take “the economic route” up to the statue was that as soon as my little sister asked for a large Rio de Janeiro/Cristo ice cream that cost $15.00, he didn’t even hesitate. He says he doesn’t have any favorites and I thought about bringing that up . . . but I digress.
Packed into a van with my whole family and a few other tourists, I was mesmerized by the sights on the way up to the statue. We traversed an area called the favelas. It was clear that this is where the poverty-stricken individuals lived as this city of tents and tin roofs had stray dogs, shoeless kids, and no clear divisions between houses, if we could even call them that. Whole slices of the mountain were filled with these homes, filling every inch. It seemed that if you could fit a small one room structure in this area, it had already been put up by someone. Around these areas, the forest was still lush and full. It looked as if the jungle was just waiting until us humans lost focus long enough for it to reclaim the areas that it once filled.
As I noticed all these details that differed so much from the heavy trafficked tourist areas, suddenly my joy was taken away from me. For a moment, I realized how easy it is to forget about the harsh reality of places we visit. I think tourist businesses and countries do an incredible job at hiding the reality surrounding their tourist attractions. Perhaps this is why instead of driving up to the Cristo, they created the cable cars which magically get you from one tourist location to another, completely bypassing the reality which is the favelas. From this point on, I decided, I would make a conscious effort to pursue the reality of places rather than the displays put in place at tourist attractions.
As I was beginning to slip into deep thought, the driver exclaimed “nós chegamos!”, “we’ve arrived.” I was jerked away from my thoughts and back into tourist mode as I saw the huge statue. The Cristo was still a climb away, but now that I was on the Corcovado mountain and not on the beach I realized how immense this beast really is. It appeared to be the height of a small skyscraper that someone set down on top of this mountain in the Tijuca Forest National Park. It almost seemed out of place. Nevertheless, I was struck by the beauty. The climb up the various stairs seemed effortless as I knew the end goal would be worth it. Before I knew it, I was at the top. I made it! I was finally witnessing one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, The Cristo. This was Rio, this was Brazil! For some reason my joy seemed to be accompanied by feelings of uncertainty because I reflected about the favelas we drove by to get here. I began to wonder if its residents ever got to come up here and experience this. I found it difficult to believe they did, because of the overly priced tickets and transportation methods to get to the top of the mountain.
This is how my trip to the city of dreams became my trip of awakening. From this trip forward, I made a conscious effort to visit the people and places that truly represented a location I was visiting rather than being so easily consumed and distracted by the tourist businesses and attractions.