Well, unfortunately, what I wrote in my last post was not ridiculous.
When I first arrived here in Rio, I was pleasantly surprised by how safe I felt. Yes, driving past the miles and miles of immensely impoverished favelas was eye-opening and horrible. But then I saw Leblon. Leblon is the neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro where I live with my tiny little, 80-year-old host avo’ (grandmother). It is the wealthiest and safest neighborhood in all of Rio. But wealthy and safe are relative words. Relative to the united states, relative to Georgetown, it is neither wealthy nor safe.
But, people can walk alone in Leblon. People can walk at night. People do not have a look of fear in their eyes at all times. So, as far as I was concerned, Rio felt a hell of a lot safer than I had been imagining in my City-of-God-filled mind.
So, I went along my merry way, trying to get myself oriented here. I met my adorable little host grandma, and all of her wonderful nieces (all in their 20s) who showed me around. I went to my 6 day-a-week (yes, including Saturdays) intensive Portuguese course at 8:30 AM for four weeks. It was brutal. But I learned a lot. And met some amazingly interesting people in the group of 130 other international students who were completing the same course: Danish, Norwegians, Germans, Italians, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Canadians, French, Luxembourgians…
I see monkeys the size of squirrels at school, amid the palm trees. I go to the world-renowned beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana after class (which is two blocks from my apartment by the way). And at these beaches, there is not a woman in sight without her backside fully exposed, or a man in sight with anything more than a speedo to cover himself. Everyone shows up to class between a half an hour and an hour late, no explanations given, and no questions asked. The Mexicans and Ecuadorians pretty much just speak Spanish in class, which generally gets them understood, but is also generally not encouraged. While I’m power-walking to get myself to class (my classic ten minutes late), the French students are casually stopping off to get a coffee and pastry and stroll into the classroom a half an hour later. Cell phones are answered in class. Really, jaw-droppingly rude behavior is exhibited left and right but doesn’t seem to phase anyone! Actually, nothing seems to phase Brazilians. Life is short. Life isn’t so serious. Nothing is a big deal.
They don’t worry themselves over being politically correct, because it’s just not a big deal. This was mentioned in one of our orientation packets but I didn’t really believe it until I got the live show; when one of my professors started waving her arms around like a genie in front of my Indian-looking friend asking, “this is how they dance in India right?” All the Americans in the room were too appalled to even say anything. Not to mention, this friend of mine was born in California. But, when an entire country’s culture is based on life not being serious, politically-incorrectness just grows on itself. I mean, the source of her information was a TV show that contains Brazilians dancing like genies, with their faces painted brown, in an attempt to mimic “India”.
So, like I said, I went on my merry way, absorbing culture left and right. And after a few weeks I started to get really comfortable. And then I started thinking “what were all those movie producers thinking, portraying Rio like that? It’s not that bad!” Sure I pass many homeless people on my way to school. Sure I get harrassed by a couple dozen Brazilian men during that mere ten minute walk. But, really, I hadn’t seen anything on the City of God level.
Then, my friend Ben on mugged. At knife-point. And I realized that “City of God” and “Tropa de Elite”-like nightmares do happen in Rio. All the time. I just hadn’t seen them. Then, a day later, I got mugged. And I realized, these things do happen, and not only in favelas, and not only to everyone else, and not only to those who aren’t being careful. They happen to anyone, anywhere, any time. You can do everything in your power to avoid it, but at the end of the day, if you don’t get mugged, it’s only because humanity was being good that day. And maybe the next day, humanity won’t be on its best behavior. You just never know. And you just can’t control it.
But then, a few days later, one of my good friends left her cell phone on a bus, in Rio de Janeiro, one of the most dangerous cities in the world. A city in which millions of people are desperately impoverished, and could sell that phone for more than a month’s worth of food. But humanity was on its best behavior that day: some kind stranger went out of his way to get that phone back to her.
So, like I said, unfortunately my fears prior to moving here weren’t entirely unfounded. But, no matter where you go, you will always find good and bad people. At Georgetown, someone might hold a door for you. Here, someone might return something you’ve lost. At Georgetown, someone might start a nasty rumor. Here, someone might hold you up at gunpoint. Potayto, potahto.