Just a few of the feelings I had before my upcoming PARALLAXploration trip: Excitement, curiosity, and impatience (from finding out where I was going). At the same time, I felt unnerved and scared not knowing where I was going. Normally, I like to prepare for my trips and love to have the accompanying excited anticipation beforehand. Why again did I agree to have my co-workers surprise me? I was beyond thrilled when I finally found out that they were sending me to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Now I knew! I have traveled all over Europe, the Middle East, Asia Pacific, and South East Asia, but South America was completely new to me. The idea of speaking Portuguese frightened me a bit, but the flamboyant culture of Brazil enticed me more.
A full care package containing boarding passes, itinerary of Airbnb places, and an awesome Wallpaper travel guide was ready for me along with details about two NGOs I was going to visit while there. In addition, a friend graciously loaned me a Lonely Planet, so I also had the more practical information at hand (an old fashioned book is great in a wifi-less environment. Yes, those exist.).
Rio took me by storm! What a gorgeous, colorful, lively city! The city is situated in an idyllic setting with long white beaches wrapping around the blue ocean and rain forests seeping into all the streets throughout Brazil. The extremely pointy hills sprinkled throughout create pockets of wonderful neighborhoods, making the city feel much smaller than it actually is (over 6+ million people reside in Rio!) I loved it all, but to keep this blog post from turning into a novel, here are some of my highlights:
Neighborhood Santa Teresa
Although I enjoyed every neighborhood for different reasons, I deeply fell in love with Santa Teresa, a bohemian, art-loving old colonial neighborhood with windy, steep streets lined with beautiful, historic Portuguese houses, and shady trees.
The streets are so steep that taxis don’t like to take you up there. That’s why it would be great to have the ‘Bonde’ tram that used to ride through the streets, up and running again by the Olympic Games in 2016.
The spectacular views
The layout of the city is so spectacular that you have to find a viewing point at least once a day. Whether you decide to brave the packs of tourists at Christ the Redeemer or Sugarloaf Mountain (Pão de Açúcar) or prefer a more quiet setting in Santa Teresa, the views at each location are breathtaking and absolutely a must while you’re in Rio.
One of my favorite parts of my PARALLAXploration trip was that I was able to enjoy live music during all four nights in Rio. The first night, I visited the popular Rio Scenarium, Pavilion of Culture in Centro where Rio senior residents (called ‘cariocas’) happily dance/shuffle amongst curious tourists.
Every night after that, I found more music spontaneously on the streets, in little cafes, in community centers, or public squares. One night, I listened to two flutists, an accordionist, a flamenco guitarist, and a tambourine player. All were absolutely talented and passionate about the tunes they played. During my last night, I found live music in a mini convenience store turned street café, where musicians played and sang their hearts out. The zest of the musicians and listeners was so infectious that I now want to live in Rio for a while and experience that more often!
Colors, tiles, and street art
White beaches, blue oceans, and colorful houses. Any color possible you see a building being painted with it. Portuguese tiles in any color and pattern beautifying the houses and streets. I loved the tiles in Lisbon, Portugal on a former trip, but here, under the South American sun, the gorgeous they come to life even more radiantly. And then the art that is all around you. Whereever you look in Santa Teresa, Centro, Lapa, and even in the favelas, paintings on houses and walls create one large open-air museum.
While I had plenty of fun, beautiful, and rich experiences in Rio, the visits to two different favelas made the most impact on me. On Saturday, I met Joe Hewitt of Street Child United at Gloria Metro Station and we traveled to Complexo do Penha, a sprawling favela (urban slum) in the most Northern part of Rio. Street Child United provides “a global platform for street children to be heard so that they receive the protection, support and opportunities all children deserve.”
“Ahead of the world’s biggest sporting competitions they organize international events inviting street children to be at the center of the call for their rights. They use the power of sport and the arts to challenge the negative perceptions and treatment of street children transforming lives across the world.” Last year, they put on the Street Child World Cup ahead of the FIFA World Cup in Brazil and now they are working on the Street Child Games that are going to happen before the Olympic Games in 2016 in Rio. Children from all over the world come to Rio to participate in the event.
I met with several expat volunteers and a group of young girls that joined a soccer team. They have a soccer pit where they train 3 times a week and play games on the weekends. The team commitment gives them a reason to show up, be part of a family they often don’t have and ultimately helps them to stay out of trouble (In Brazil, there is a very high teen pregnancy rates amongst girls and a high rate of involvement in drug trafficking amongst boys). Some of the girls are so good that, given the opportunity, they can easily become professional soccer players. But when you hear that the week before my visit, these same kids were hiding in a corner of the pit waiting for a shooting between police and drug cartels to die down, you realize how difficult even small commitments like joining a soccer team is already a huge step for them.
Street Child United shows them that there is more than the favela and gives them hope for a better future.
I toured around the favela on the back of a motorbike through crazy steep, narrow alleys, over open sewage systems, and under hundreds of electrical wires that (illegally) connect to the city’s system to get energy for their TVs (Brazillian soap operas are hugely popular!). Street Child United connects with the local community and makes them a very active participant and leader in maintaining the soccer pit, coaching the teams and ultimately making it a sustainable solution for the youth in their community.
A few days later, I met with Scott Miles from Project Favela, a small non-profit in Rocinha, a huge favela in the most southern part of Rio, providing children from the ages 3 – 16 with English, math, art, and music education. Volunteers come to stay as little as 3 weeks to 3-6 months to teach the kids. Eventually Scott wants to start a charter school with full time teachers and project-based volunteers for art, music, theatre, etc.
Project Favela is more in its infancy and is still figuring out the growing pains of a burgeoning non-profit. While learning more about their efforts, I gained a better sense of understanding of how important it is to have a sustainable model and growth plan to follow. In order to have a successful program, you must have a strong operational model in place and gain trust, buy-in, and active participation from the local community. As an entrepreneur, this was extremely helpful insight and also helps me have a better perspective when working with our clients who do their own form of social good.
Although I felt at times overwhelmed by the poverty, hopelessness of the kids’ situation, and definitely quite scared when walking into the middle of police men decked out with pulled AK-47s, handguns, bullet proof vests ready to ambush a house with members of the ruling drugs cartel, I could not have wished for a richer, more complete, and inspiring trip than the one I just took to Rio.