I'm starting a new series about my first trip to Brazil, and my initial impressions of the country and the culture. On the trip, I spent two weeks in Rio, Pernambuco, and Bahia. The first stop was Rio.
I'd been studying in Buenos Aires, where I was largely unimpressed by the culture (tango, protests, and meat), with the exception of the mouth-watering beef, and I ended up making friends with Brazilians. I took a Portuguese class and began planning a trip to Brazil after the semester was over. I had gone to Argentina from the Dominican Republic, and I missed the "tropical" culture, which I managed to replace with Brazilian culture.
So one night in July 2006, I flew from Buenos Aires to Rio on a red eye with two friends, after going to my friend's birthday party. After a night without sleep, I woke up in Brazil.
When we landed, the first thing I noticed was the Igreja da Penha, which is a beautiful church set on a bump of a hill near the runway. Ever since then, it's the first thing I look for as soon as I land or take off in Rio, like a beacon.
I had requested a transfer from the hostel where we were staying, but no one showed up to meet us. I was too tired to panic, and attempted to use the payphone. Unfortunately, I was the only one with any knowledge of Portuguese, so I was in charge. One of the pushy local cab drivers tried to help me call the hostel, and when I got through, the person announced that they had forgotten about our transfer. Sorry, tough luck. So the sleazy cab driver took us to Ipanema, ripping us all off fair and square.
On the way to the hostel, I couldn't get over how normal the city looked. It was a big city, like any other. My Argentine host family had basically told me that Rio was a war zone, and bid me farewell as if I might not make it back alive. But I have little recollection of the favelas that line the highway from the airport, but I do remember emerging on the highway near the Feira de Sao Cristovao, and marveling at the enormous hills we passed, and the tunnels we went through. "We're going under Cristo now!" the cab driver announced at one point.
We stayed at the Ipanema Beach House, which is good for one thing and one thing only: the location, a few blocks from the beach. Somehow, I got stuck in a room with eight other people, on the second bunk on a triple bunk bed. I tried to sleep once we'd checked in, though it wasn't easy with people coming in and out of the room. We met up with two other friends there, and in the afternoon we all headed to the beach, which didn't look at all like it did in "City of God." But it was stunningly beautiful, and I couldn't quite believe it was real. We bought cangas and passed out, shivering slightly in the sand.
"This is heaven," I thought as I drifted off.
I didn't have the slightest idea that this ridiculously beautiful city would very soon be my new home.