Two weeks deep and the reality of living in Rio de Janeiro is just starting to set in.
I spent my first six days in Brazil at a hostel in the upscale neighborhood of Ipanema, where it felt more like a vacation than the start of a new adventure.
It can be difficult to comprehend the true essence of a city when you’re positioned between the Rolex shop and the Louis Vuitton store, but then again, while it’s not the life of most Cariocas, it is the life of some.
From Ipanema, I moved into an apartment in the working class neighborhood of Laranjeiras, where I’ve experienced a more realistic approach to life in Rio.
My knowledge of the city and it’s people is still superficial, but I’ve managed a few first impressions and observations worth sharing.
1. The beach is the one constant for all
While social lines can be drawn from one area to the next, the beaches of Rio are what bring people together. From Baha to Flamengo, all classes enjoy the beach exactly the same. Beach volleyball, footvolley, paddleball, soccer and body surfing are common activities of princes and paupers alike.
2. The women people are beautiful
THE HYPE IS REAL. Tan skin, toned bodies and all the Latin features a guy (or gal) could ask for. I’ve never felt so intimidated than I do running along Ipanema Beach on a Sunday afternoon. This place is going to whip me into the best shape of my life, just so I can fit in.
3. Addicted to juice
After the beaches and beauties, my favorite aspect of living in Rio de Janeiro so far has been the accessibility to amazingly fresh fruit juices. On many street corners across the city, there are small shops that offer an endless variety of sucos (juices) from watermelon to kiwi. They also serve sandwiches and an assortment of fried Brazilian snacks like pao de quejo (cheese bread) and salgadinhos (a savory stuffed fried or baked dough).
4. Acai and coconut water
Acai is the magic Brazilian berry that’s becoming all the rage in California as the trendy “super food” and coconut water has been marketed as the latest and greatest remedy for the hangover back home.
Here in Brazil, they’re a staple in everyone’s diet and I’ve been downing them like a drunken hipster from Burbank.
5. Spanish is a gift and a curse
My knowledge of Spanish is and will be a gift and a curse. I can understand about 50% of what people are saying and even more when things are written down. Many words overlap and the structure of Spanish and Portuguese are very similar.
My pronunciation in Portuguese however, couldn’t be more off. Because it sounds similar, I’ve been referring to Spanish instead of attempting to speak in Portuguese so I need to learn to turn that off.
I’m going to start some intensive Portuguese classes in the coming weeks that will hopefully help me draw a line between the two.
6. I feel safe
A relentless sense of paranoia everywhere I go helps limit my risk in many situations. I don’t go out alone late at night and I stay out of questionable neighborhoods if I’m not with a local.
I am aware that something can happen at any moment to anyone, but I have felt very safe in my neighborhood and around the city so far.
It also helps that once I got a bit of sun, it was easy for me to blend in. Unlike everywhere else I’ve been in Latin America (besides Argentina), my height or size here isn’t a factor. In Rio, I’m an average size guy that looks as much Brazilian as I do anything else (until I open my mouth).
Like anywhere, the trick is to not turn on the news or else I would never leave home.
7. So many activities
While many Brazilians are genetically gifted, those less fortunate have plenty of opportunities to get even. The government and businesses of Rio ensure the sexiness of their people by setting up a variety of activities for everyone to enjoy.
There are endless bike and running trails along the beach with workout stations every half-mile or so and local organizations hold exercise classes on the beach every evening.
My personal favorite is the prison style gyms setup in a few hidden spots around town. Locals only of course.
8. It’s (relatively) expensive
Sandwiches cost around $7 US and a basic dinner out will run about $15-20 per person. Like many South American countries, electronics are very, very expensive and (real) name brand clothing is at a premium. Public transportation is reasonable ($1.25/bus ride), but taxis can get pretty expensive ($10-30).
What’s cheap here? A big beer is $4, a pack of cigarettes is $3 and there is tons of free music and outdoor entertainment.
9. Flip-Flops and Board shorts
Many locals in Rio de Janeiro wear flip-flops and board shorts on a regular basis. This makes me happy because in many Latin American cities people will still where jeans no matter how hot it is – and it is very hot here.
This is great news for all you Australian backpackers out there who look like completely out of place everywhere else in South America.
The hype is real, the scenery is incredible and the city is filled with so many dramatic and seductive layers that I can’t wait to uncover. Let’s see what happens…