In May of 2019, I visited Rio de Janeiro for the first time. I was only there for a long weekend nested inside a longer trip to Brazil, but my short time in Rio spoke out quite loudly to me. I was there with Jess, a close friend of mine who ended up being my girlfriend, or minha namorada. That’s a story for another week.

When I visit cities in different parts of the world, I usually have a distinct feeling that pops up. Naturally, it’s difficult to describe these feelings in words. They all have their own qualities and are experienced in different ways. In Rio it was sort of this euphoric, mellow buzzing of the heart. I’ll venture to say that being in Rio felt how this photo looks.

If you know anything about Rio, you probably know that it’s not the safest place in the world. With more than 12 million people living in the city and surrounding areas, it can get a little chaotic. I was mostly confined to the relatively safe, touristy areas of Ipanema and Copacabana.

We spent a lot of time walking around in the comfort of the warm, still air, soaking in the complex sights, smells, and sounds, one at a time. The beach was full of what looked like tourists who were mostly Brazilian. Walking along, glancing down at the wavy patterns on the sand-scattered sidewalk, I heard street vendors selling hats, sunglasses, trinkets, and my personal favorite, caipirinhas. A caipirinha is lime juice, sugar, and cachaça (sugar cane liquor) over ice. It’s a Brazilian classic, and offers the perfect refreshment for a hot, sweaty visit to the beach.

After stopping at the store for some water, we made our way inland. It was a sunny day, but I felt cool under the shade provided by the canopy of trees lining the sidewalks. There may be more trees than people, even in the most urban areas. The trees insulate sound nicely, so it felt more calm than I expected, and it didn’t quite feel like I was in the heart of one of the most populous cities in the world.

Walking past storefronts, rubbing shoulders with Brazilians in their home, I heard the musical chatter of Portuguese, Brazil’s national language. Other times during the trip I felt frustrated at not being able to understand, even though my personal translator was more than helpful. But this time, the passing sounds of the language sounded melodic. Most intonations were foreign to a native English speaker like me, but there was a natural rhythm to it. I closed my eyes and sunk into the emotions of the natives, focusing on the sounds, not the words.

As we turned the corner near one of the Favellas, the feeling in my gut shifted. It was no longer a euphoric buzz in my heart, but an anxiety. Being the only pale-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired gringo in sight, I knew I stuck out like a sore thumb among the droves of locals who called this block their home. There was no blending in here, at least not for me. One by one, storefronts turned into empty, dark, dusty cut outs where shops used to be. In each one was a person or two, looking over their shoulders like they were up to no good. The camera hidden in my backpack suddenly felt heavier and more noticeable, almost like it was beeping loudly, and in my head I thought I was drawing attention to myself only by walking down that street. That’s just the reality of Rio. Some streets aren’t so welcoming, and they call to you in a different tone.

After emerging from the unsettling area, we reached the Lagoa, a big lake nested inside the city near Ipanema (seen in the bottom left corner of the image). We walked around lake on the trail, passing coconut vendors, more trees, families and kids laying and playing in the grass, basketball and soccer competitions, couples holding hands, people laughing, smiling, and singing along with street musicians injecting Bossa Nova sounds into the culturally immersive experience. There was a cheerful calm there within the chaos of the whole city. I bought a few fresh coconuts and savored the sweet and refreshing taste, adding one more dimension the whole scene.

In those 3 days, I took in a lot. I was left with a desire to step further into the enigma that is Rio de Janeiro. I think to truly connect with this place, I’ll have to blend into the streets, learn in its native tongue, and spend some time dancing along with the rhythm of the bustling city streets.

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