Rio de Janeiro in summer… is there anything better? Kay has been to Rio several times and he loves it, but his Brazilian family warned us about visiting this “dangerous city” and, to be honest, New Years is a bit of a crazy time to visit because the city is pulsing with tension, excitement, drugs, and alcohol. You could feel the excitement in the air and smell the danger that comes along with it here.
After months of warning me, Kay had freaked me out about Rio so much that I hadn’t even brought my wedding and engagement ring on this trip, something I never leave at home when I travel! Maybe it is something about his intimate knowledge of the country, but he warns me about Brazil like no other place, and has a special concern for Rio. So I carried an old purse and left my wallet and everything in the hotel the whole time.Since university, I have dreamt of visiting the balmy beaches of Rio and Copacabana and finally, the dream was coming true! Don’t let anyone tell you differently, Brazilian beaches are stunning! And like all of Brazil, there is cold sugar cane juice, caipirinhas, and delicious food beckoning at every corner!It was also hot, hot, hot! I was ready to get in the water.This gringo was absolutely enjoying herself, although we were slightly worried about getting in the water at the same time. I mean, I have had friends have even their havaianas stolen while they were swimming here. Kay was also keeping his eyes open, which meant paying closer attention to what the Brazilians are doing. If people are loud and crazy and no one cares, you don’t have to care… but if all the locals suddenly react to something, you should too! Fights can break out fairly easily in Rio, especially at New Years and Brazilians are known to be rather passionate. While we were on the beach, everyone was minding their business, when suddenly a huge cluster broke out and lots of people suddenly stood up to watch something… two people fighting. It is times like this that you have to be very careful what is going on and if there are weapons, especially guns involved, you need to act quickly.
Thankfully, the fight dissipated in a matter of minutes and everyone went back to normal. Go back to enjoying the water. You might say we were enjoying our time in Rio with underlying tension and stress in the background…Rio is actually the first city that I have ever felt uncomfortable in. I had been to New York, Stockholm, Rome, Barcelona, Brussels, London, Oman, Beijing, and countless other cities, and this was the first time I felt routinely nervous about what was going to happen.
After visiting the beach, Kay actually tried to get some petty change because finding small bills is an issue in Brazil and we wanted to take a bus where we would need the small bills. He went to try and change money in a store while I waited at a bus stop.
While I was waiting, a man about 2-3m (6-10ft) away came up to an elderly lady and quickly put her in a choke hold and screamed at her, something in Portuguese that I didn’t understand at all. It happened so quickly, but almost as soon as it started, he let her go and was walking around, while my heart was racing in my chest and I was freaking out.
Did this man have a knife? A gun? Was he on drugs or just out to get money? I had no idea, but as Kay walked out of a store and back towards the bus stop, he had to pass by this man and I was absolutely flipping out that something horrible was going to happen. I have never ever had these kind of thoughts anywhere, but within a matter of minutes, everything was racing through me.
Kay got to me just fine and the crazy guy had wandered off… Kay couldn’t get change from the store (Figures! Change is sooo hard to come by there!) so he asked if I wanted to take an Uber instead for more money and I quickly agreed to whatever… whatever would get us in a taxi or cab or away from this bus stop and man faster.
We eventually made it to Christ the Redeemer and all the good weather from the day in the photos above changed to rain and wind as we were atop the hill.
I don’t know if it was the storm or the extra crowds from the holidays, but there was also a kind of electricity aside from the actual thunder and lightning that had everyone buzzing. We made sure to keep a good watch on our personal items as we marveled, OK, mostly I marveled since Kay had already seen this before, at Christ the Redeemer. Despite the drizzle, I was happily marking this off of my “must see” list. Maybe Sugar Loaf wouldn’t quite count though, with this weather:Sugar loaf is out there somewhere, right?? Not even my panos were working out up there. Woe is me.The storm broke up for a little bit before coming in for round two.
It started raining pretty decidedly, so we slowly started to make our way down, which was our first experience with crowds in Rio pushing us places we don’t really plan to go. There was a long line to go down with the rain coming, and no one wanted to be out in the storm when it started whipping up rain and wind, but you had to wait to get a train down in groups. Everyone pressed forward as much as possible, and sometimes we were moved a bit by the crowd and not ourselves.On New Year’s Eve, we went out to eat before going out for the night. I learned first hand that Brazilian chefs do not take criticism kindly. I had explained my celiac disease and that I cannot eat bread or wheat or all these kind of things, so I ordered a gluten friendly meal and was happily eating the beef below until I got to a pita, which looked very bread and pita-like. It was sitting on the plate below all the meat and rice and hummus.
We showed it to the waiter and said, “What is this? We said no bread.” And he replied, “But it’s pita! Not bread.”
[Ugh, classic “celiac” moment with the pita-is-not-bread moment. They all tell you about it, but you don’t think it will happen to you!]
Kay said, “No, she can’t eat that.” So the waiter offered to take the pita away, and Kay had to explain that no, he can’t just take it away because it touched all the rice and meat and now all this food is contaminated with gluten for me. The waiter was very apologetic that he didn’t understand this when he took my order, so he went to explain it to the chef, who did not take it so kindly.
The kitchen was open to the restaurant, so we could see them conversing and you could see the irritation of the chef saying, “But I made exactly what you said! I did it correctly,” and the waiter explaining that, “No, it’s still not right, she cannot eat it. You have to do it again.” And the chef was so pissed that he was being criticized.
When I received my new plate, it was actually just rice and meat lumped together. “What about my hummus?” I asked Kay, dejectedly, and he had to ask the waiter to ask to get me some hummus again. I didn’t get any of the salad concoction again, which had been one of the tastiest parts of the meal, but I didn’t want to upset the cook again, so I let it go.
After dinner, we headed out to the beach. I was prepared for a crazy night. I took off my necklace but kept in my small stud earrings; Kay took off his wedding ring. We both wore white as is customary for New Years. I had on white high-waisted shorts with deep pockets and inside I had stuffed our Olympus Tough 4 to take photos. We both left our wallets and IDs at home and Kay just brought a bit of cash with him in shorts with zippered pockets.
He didn’t want me to bring the camera, but I said that New Years Eve on Copacabana was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so it was worth possibly having the camera stolen. After all, my big camera was locked up in the hotel because I didn’t dare to take it out in Rio at all!The beach was already pretty full when we arrived, but we started working our way into the crowd.
Kay was wary of buying anything to drink besides bottled beer or water, because there are lots of stories about people diluting hard liquor with things that make you go blind, or just making a shitty diluted cocktail, so we figured we would just keep it safe. I have enough stomach problems without drinking random chemicals!The stage was pumping and it was glorious… live Brazilian music and tons of people dancing and enjoying themselves.
Unfortunately, things already started to get a little crazy early on. Some fighting broke out nearby, which you could immediately tell because a thick crowd suddenly had a huge gaping hole as people dodged to the side to get away from the action.
It seemed that there was some kind of domestic fight going on. It died away at first, but people kept getting provoked, and suddenly we were right next to a big ring around a few people. There were two men fighting with a woman nearby, one younger and one older… The older man had his fists up and literally motioned for the other to come at him with his hand. I have NEVER seen this outside of movies. It was crazy. The guys dove at each other and then several other people ran in and pulled them apart.
The crowd was all shouting at them at this point, and we were looking around where the police were, because there were police everywhere in watch towers and even a helicopter.
Some time later, the fight broke out again even worse, and this time, the woman was throttling the neck of the older guy and everyone was shouting in the ring, meanwhile, the crowd was shouting and jumping and pointing to the police, who did nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Eventually everything calmed down again, but the fighting really put me on edge. At this point in my sheltered life, it was my first time seeing real fighting, and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Kay was disappointed in his countrymen for fighting during a time of public celebration and he said it’s sad because it typically happens around the holidays when people are drinking too much.
Still, we started to enjoy the music again and after awhile the fighting faded away and the clock counted down.Finally the time came for the countdown and the fireworks! 2016 hello!I made a little video for midnight…. to try and show the craziness and joy of thousands of people on a beach celebrating and popping champagne and fireworks going off all across Copacabana! It was incredible in person.
Kay and I kissed as midnight struck, as we do.We enjoyed the last of the fireworks and then decided we should probably GTFO as fast as possible. And let me tell you, we had a time trying to get out of there.
As we made to leave, we realized that the police weren’t opening up any of the barricades they’d set up to quarantine people for the wait, so you had thousands of people trying to press through a very small amount of exits.
A crowded night with drunken, easily-provoked people. They got angry. People were pressed tight. They started pushing. The closer we got to the exit, the less control we had about where we were going. I was following Kay and tried to keep my hand on him, and at first he thought I was pushing him and was getting pissed off, before he realized it was the crowd and not me.
At one point, I reached my hand down to my pants to check for the camera and my heart jumped in my chest. It was GONE. Oh God! Already!! Then I moved my hand up my waist to the top of the shorts, which was under my shirt, and remembered that I’d stuffed the camera into the pockets and up so that it was lodged in the tight part of the pocket beneath my shirt. But ohhh I was getting nervous!
We switched and had Kay go behind me and keep his hands on me and the pocket with the camera. We were being pressed close to the funnel of people exiting and honestly could barely control our movement anymore.
Suddenly we realized there were hands, everywhere, reaching out. Kay started to feel someone opening his zipped shorts pocket with the hotel key and cash. He swatted them away, but we were both feeling pretty stressed and nervous. Kay also saw a hand reach out as if to pat a friend on the back, only to have the hand close around someone’s necklace and try to yank it off their neck, choking them as it strained to break. Everyone was trying to pick pocket everyone. People were also bordering on angry as folks became agitated from being pushed and began to push back.
Finally, we were carried away through the thickest point of the gate, almost without walking at all. I’ve realized that I get very nervous whenever I am in crowded situations where I cannot control where I am going anymore. We made a bee line for our hotel, which Kay had booked not far away from the beach. I was really thankful that we didn’t have a long walk through the tunnel toward the beach at night.
We were back in our room by 1am and spent some time before bed looking out the window at the crowds of people leaving the beach. We both agreed that it was absolutely incredible being on Copacabana for New Years (huge bucket list item!), but we are happy we didn’t stay later and happy to not do it again.On New Years Day we went for a food tour with Culinary Backstreets. We were supposed to visit a house in the favelas with home-cooked food that I was really looking forward to, but when we got to the neighborhood and wanted to take the ski lift up, it was shut down. Our guide asked why and the operators casually said that it was shut down because there was just a shooting and the police were there investigating.
We had just seen the lift moving moments earlier, so it was clear that the accident had just happened. Our guide immediately called a taxi and shuttled us away before we could run into police and/or suspects and we went to a different restaurant than planned. Always exciting in Rio!
On one of our last days, Kay had received an invitation from one of his future INSEAD classmates for a rooftop BBQ, which was every bit as amazing as you would imagine.Did I mention there was a pool and views of Christ the Redeemer??Amazing home and amazing views.Here you can really see Kay daydreaming about living in Rio some day.We agreed that if we were to live in Rio, we would not be sad to do it in a place like this… but that’s probably just a dream. I can’t imagine how expensive a place like this is to find!Soon it was time for one last buffet-style meal with feijoada. Mmmm. And then time for the airport.Ending the trip was rather weird, because Kay had already moved to his new flat in Paris for his business foundations course in December as a precursor to his 2016 studies. We had flown out of Paris together after I saw his flat, and when we flew back, he would be staying in Paris and I would continue on home alone.
It was the first time we ended a holiday in different homes, and that made me pretty sad. I savored those last moments with him in Brazil and the airport and started planning my first trips of 2016.