Sometimes it’s hard to realize at the time, but often really getting a sense of a foreign place means not having a plan.  It means hanging out with locals and really experiencing everyday life as they do.  On almost every international trip I have taken, my very first approach to experiencing a new city is to pack my first few days with a non-stop itinerary of things to see, do, and eat.  The nine days I have spent in Brazil thus far have been a big departure from that (except for the eating part!), despite my obsession with planning and being productive every day when I travel.

Stone designs that line all sidewalks in Rio

In the case of Rio de Janeiro (or “Hio Janeiro” as it is pronounced here), I let myself relax and tried not to focus on how different the days were playing out compared to my trip through Asia.  Experiencing true Carioca (as Rio de Janeiro people are called) life means many things.  At every tiny hole in the wall cafe, bar, street corner, and beach kiosk people are drinking something –  usually Chopp (draft beer), and people of all walks of life eagerly await to chat with you, whether or not they speak much English.  You can drink a Chopp at basically any time during the day – paired with some dried meat, farofa, and grilled yuca it is a great afternoon stop after strolling the streets.  It only occurred to me on the third day I was in Rio that at almost every meal except breakfast I had been eating some sort of red meat.  Amazing!

My new-found obsession - thin cloth beach throws

I spent my first real day in Rio at the beach in Ipanema in between Posts 9 and 10.  Many of the young people hang out here.  Though I felt a bit self conscious in my new Brazilian-style bathing suit and in amongst a bunch of young, perfectly buff and tanned Cariocas, I realized that there’s really no reason to feel weird about anything.  It’s a scene of all shapes, sizes, and ages wearing all sorts of barely-there bathing suits we would balk at in the US.  But for that same reason I loved it.

I fell in love with vendors on the beaches of Leblon, Ipanema, and Copacabana, much the same well I became obsessed with the crazy food markets in Thailand.  There is the guy carrying an umbrella completely weighed down by hundreds of bandeau bikinis in all different colors that he is selling.  The “Mate men,” as I have come to call them, who dress in special uniformed orange t-shirts and carry heavy metal barrels sloshing with the traditional strong-tasting tea, which in Brazil is consumed cold, while in Argentina is served hot.  It is amazing how resourceful each vendor is.  My favorite were the ones selling “queijo coalho,” a typical Brazilian cheese on a stick.  When called over, they unload different ziplock bags and coat the cheese in herbs, then roast it on a tiny portable grill they carry.  Just the perfect snack you have been craving on the beach.  A few dozen other vendors walk these large expanses of sand, from one end of the beach to the other, some with huge half sandwich boards that display anything from earrings and sunglasses, to temporary tattoos and other chatchkis.  The scene is really quite amazing, especially given the beautiful backdrop that is Rio – the “two brothers” mountain and a the biggest favela in Rio on the neighboring hillside.  I spent the entire day mesmerized by it.

Queijo Coalho

A little tidbit on drinking in Brazil…

Brazilians are obsessed with the temperature of their drinks, so much so that when you drink a Chopp (“choppi” as it is pronounced) it is served in a tiny glass we would think only to use for juice at breakfast back home to prevent it from becoming warm.

Beer is poured with at least two fingers worth of foam, something unthinkable in American bars, but I learned there is a reason for the madness.  Since summers are so hot here, the theory is that the foam on top continues to keep the beer cool.  On beaches, vendors go to the trouble of giving you a styrofoam cooler to hold your soda.  As for Caipirinhas, which I have been ravenously drinking since the moment I got here,  they are not what I had known them to be.  Most Brazilians drink them with vodka, not cachaca (technically making the drink a caipirosca).   They think cachaca is too strong, and they love drinking them with fruits other than lime, such as passion fruit or pineapple.  Sugar is also optional.

Since it rained or was very overcast during most of the rest of my days spent in Rio, I decided to approach touring the city with more of a Carioca mind set.  This meant leisurely strolling the exciting streets of Leblon and Ipanema, drinking coconut water by the beach, taking long lunches with locals (of course accompanied by Chopp and other drinks) at traditional restaurants such as Galeto do Leblon, and really enjoying the way of life.  One of the things I discovered is my love for soccer culture.  I will admit, it’s a sport I really don’t follow much at home, but for some reason when I am out of the country, I am completely engaged by it.  It’s intriguing to think that no sport in the U.S. garners the same amount of attention, energy, and obsession as soccer does in almost all countries outside the U.S., and especially in Brazil.  Experiencing this excitement before, during, and after a game on the streets of Rio is amazing.

Adriana, my friend Mariana’s sister living in Rio definitely helped ease me into a more relaxed pace of seeing the city, and we had a great day despite not being able to see the touristy Concorvado that day.  She was so welcoming and an amazing tour guide, explaining many things about Brazilian culture as we drove around.  It got me thinking that the time we often spend touring the “must see” places written about in a guidebook really doesn’t allow you to experience much of the local culture.  In my case it was more interesting and cultural to spend a day with a local.

We spent that rainy afternoon visiting Caixa Cultural in the Centro part of Rio.  During our drive, it was interesting to see how different a landscape this part of Rio was, bringing to life some of what I had read about the big discrepancy between rich and poor in a place like Brazil.  Only a short drive from a beautiful shopping center of boutiques with clothes sold at NYC prices, I was in a place where, at night in some parts many locals don’t stop at red lights out of fear.  We visited two galleries in a nice part of downtown where many office building are located.   Joao Robert Ripper had a gallery of some beautiful black-and-white images depicting the struggle faced by many workers in various parts of Brazil.  As an aspiring photographer, it was great to see that even in parts of Brazil where it seems so few people live (such as the Pantanal)  he was able to generate amazing images of life there.  The gallery was divided into four sections, but most showed suffering of workers who have basically been enslaved, given very few rights, and paid only enough to survive – whether it be coal mining, farming, or the like.  The other gallery we saw of ward Curtis and Claudia Andujar illustrated intimate photos Native Americans (from North America) juxtaposed with natives from the Amazon of Brazil.

Adriana and I spent the rest of the day chatting about our mutual love of photography, Sebastian Salgado and travel, looking at Brazilian books and movies.  At 5 pm, we were ready for chopp and caipirinas at a local bar in Leblon.