An American In Rio — What I Learned In Brazil’s ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’

We sent our editor, John-Erik, to Rio de Janeiro ahead of the Games. He has never been to South America before, he doesn’t speak a word of Portuguese and he has no clue what he’s doing. Our gringo in Rio has a lot to learn.

When the opportunity for an impromptu trip to Rio de Janeiro came my way, I wasn’t about to turn it down.

Wait, but the entire trip will be filmed? People all over the world will witness my ignorant questions, embarrassing tourist faux pas and stupid language mistakes I commit while I’m on vacation?

Well… there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Brazil here I come!

Praia do Leme

My first stop is Rio’s center of public life — the beach! Praia do Leme is a postcard-perfect vision of a tropical vacation: fine white sand, palm trees, stands selling coconut water straight from the fruit. Oh, and lots of people playing sports (but I mean seriously playing sports). Jeez, is everyone on this beach a professional athlete? The clichés about Brazilian beach-bods should have prepared me, but dang — these people are fit (and I am so not).

I know I can’t stand on the sidelines all day, so I try to join in. A Muay Thai instructor lets me audit his class in the shade of some palms (I don’t know how to ask in Portuguese, but luckily “fight club” proves to be a universal phrase). Doing reps is the perfect opportunity to learn numbers in Portuguese, so now I can count to ten (that should come in handy later). I also learn how to say “thank you” (obrigado). Nearby, some people are training for a sport I never knew existed, futevôlei, a cross between soccer (futebol) and volleyball (voleibol) that was invented in Rio. It looks difficult, but I give it a go. Training becomes a chance to learn some useful verbs, like chutar (“to kick”), and the Portuguese words for body parts, but I’m a hopeless futevôlei player: I’m not very good at hitting the ball with my cabeça, braço, peito… to be honest, not with my pés either).


It’s tempting to believe that you can get by anywhere in the world only speaking English, but in Brazil, at least, that is simply not true. Still, I’m discovering that most people are very approachable and chatty in Rio — even when we don’t have a language in common! I’ve already found myself in more than one long conversation where I speak English the whole time and my conversation partner speaks Portuguese the whole time. All of my gestures (and the t-shirt covered in icons) can help to get a point across, but I mostly have to thank the patience and good will of the people who take the time to talk to me.

I’m picking up words sporadically — boteco, gelada, feijoada — but I luck out when I’m offered an impromptu language lesson by some young ladies I meet at Arpoador (a popular sunset-viewing spot in Ipanema). Thanks to them, I now know that residents of Rio are called cariocas, the yummy purple goo I’ve been eating (açai) is made from Amazonian berries, and (I know I’m getting ahead of myself here) how to invite someone to dance: Você quer dançar comigo?, or the more polite: Você gostaria de dançar comigo?

Next stop: Finding a place to dance samba in the lively Lapa district. Uh-oh, maybe I should have asked for a samba lesson first: Você poderia me ensinar a sambar?


Dancing samba is very much a Saturday night kind of activity… but here I am looking for a samba bar on a Tuesday night. OK, maybe not the best plan, but I did get a good tip: the neighborhood of Lapa is the center of Rio’s nightlife. If there’s any samba happening tonight, it will be here. All I need to do is follow the music wafting from the open fronts of bars. I stop outside one where the band is really grooving. I’ve never seen samba performed before and I’m immediately drawn in by the intimate, communal vibe of the performers. As I step onto the dance floor, terrified to test my (non)moves in front of some very confident dancers, I realize that I have nothing to fear. The bar is so crowded with happy revelers that no one even notices that I don’t know what to do with my feet.

Morro do Vidigal

Rio de Janeiro is a patchwork of striking contrasts: city and wilderness, danger and beauty, wealth and poverty. The favela known as Vidigal manages to sum up all these clashing forces at once. Favela is often translated as “shanty town” or “slum,” but in this tourist’s eyes, Vidigal is a vibrant and defiant expression of creativity (please forgive this outsider’s romanticization). Granted, I mostly see the neighborhood from the back of a mototáxi as it races through the too-narrow streets, but all the people I meet — taxi drivers waiting for fares at the bottom of the hill, vendors in the kiosks, people hanging out in a nearby square — are warm, welcoming and incredibly patient with my bewildered attempts to communicate.

Being A Tourist

It’s my last day, so it’s time to embrace my (not so) inner gringo and go into tourist mode. On the docket: star architect Santiago Calatrava’s Museu do Amanhã (Museum of Tomorrow) in the Centro disctrict; the Escadaria Selarón, an outdoor staircase completely covered in colorful tiles; the Arcos da Lapa, an aqueduct turned tram bridge; Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, a lagoon with gorgeous 360 views of the city’s mountains; and finally Pão de Açúcar (sugar loaf), which I discovered after some confusion is a granite mountain, not a dessert. There’s no time to to get to the top of Corcovado, the city’s tallest peak, to see the iconic Cristo Redentor up close, but I guess you can only do so much in one day.

My time in Rio has been so inspiring, and it’s the people I’ve met here who have really made it special. The small amount of Portuguese I’ve picked up on this trip opened a tiny window onto their world, and now I’m inspired and motivated to learn more. There’s so much to discover about Brazilian culture and I look forward to the deeper, richer experience I can have when I come back prepared with a knowledge of the language. Next time…

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